“The Congress shall have the power to . . . declare war . . .”
—United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11
“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
—then-Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007
Someone must have reminded Barack Obama of his 2007 statement, or maybe something caused him to recall the provision in the Constitution he had relied on as a presidential candidate when he made that statement. Whatever. At least he figured out before it was too late what his responsibility is when it comes to injecting U.S. military force into a foreign policy crisis.
The subject, this time around, is Syria, where the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad has apparently taken to using chemical weapons (sarin gas being the principal component) in attacks against the rebellious Syrian forces and those civilians (men, women and children) who happen to be in proximity with them. Obama had declared early on that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line,” by which he intended to impart the message that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own citizens, the United States would react militarily.
And that was his first error. No president should ever issue such a threat for the simple reason that no president, alone, has the power to carry out such a threat. Obama knows that. He is no dummy, whatever else might be said about him.
But he was pretty dumb to use the military option threat against a regime (Assad’s) that was clearly holding on to power at all costs and that had already killed thousands of its citizens with conventional weaponry (not to mention the untold numbers who have been killed while in captivity or have been tortured or otherwise mistreated in a heavy-handed attempt to quell the rebellion that has been ongoing now for over two years).
Obama’s blustery secretary of State, John Kerry, is also no dummy, but he has been pretty dumb in his response to the news that the Assad regime has crossed the “red line.” He fulminated while touring Europe, as if just proclaiming the fact would be enough to garner support for an all-out attack on Assad’s regime. “Not so fast,” most of the EU nations declared. “Let’s think this over first.”
And think they have, with only France seeming to side with the U.S. push for military action, and with Great Britain (the principal ally of the U.S. on all matters military), after parliamentary debate, voting against any participation in such action.
Kerry’s latest not-all-that-bright comment was that “the credibility of the United States is on the line,” as a result of which he is sure “Congress will do the right thing.”
Maybe it will and maybe it won’t, but the point is that Congress isn’t an arm of the Obama administration, nor, when it comes to the ability to inject military force into an independent nation, should it be. That constitutional provision about the power to declare war has never been fully tested in a Supreme Court case for the simple reason that no president wants to test it (and, probably, no one in Congress really wants it to be affirmed as meaning that only Congress can authorize military actions).
For now, it’s the president who must seek Congressional authorization to initiate a military attack, and that is the case notwithstanding that every president since Harry Truman has, in one event or more, seen fit to ignore that restriction on his powers and circumvent the requirement to take a call to arms to Congress for prior approval.
Obama has already done it several times in his administration, Libya being perhaps the most blatant example. But the public is sick of war (a cyclical thing, to be sure; we get sick of it when we’ve been in one for too long; then we get on board for another one when we haven’t been in one for a while), and even a limited air assault on a corrupt and immoral government that is using horrific means to kill its own people is not, currently, reason enough to take on another military encounter.
What makes Obama’s missteps so intriguing is that they come in the face not only of his comments as a candidate in 2007, but in the aftermath of his recognition as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. That award was probably one of the silliest the Nobel voters have issued, coming before Obama had even been in office for a year, but it was also an affront to those who have rightfully been awarded it, all the more so, now that the man’s true stripes have become clear.
Far from being a peace-loving conciliator, this president is a war-monger in sheep’s clothing. Yes, he seems pacifistic in his political persona, but give him the ability to use his country’s massive military might, and he hardly shrinks from doing so. Of course, like his two predecessors, he never fought in a war himself. And, unlike his immediate predecessor, he never even wore a uniform. If asked, he would probably say that he only uses military force when it is in his country’s interest to do so. Of course, how that interest might be defined is a matter of subjective interpretation.
In Syria, it apparently has to do with moral righteousness. As a nation, we oppose the use of sarin gas on innocent civilians. Never mind whether the effect of using military force to combat that use makes the United States safer or places it on a higher moral ground. Never mind whether the citizens of the United States, through their elected representatives, support the use of military force in such a circumstance.
Obama stopped himself in his tracks this time. And Congress may well give him the authorization he seeks. But whatever happens now, he is unmasked for the war-monger he has become.
I wonder if that Nobel committee can recall his Peace Prize.