On Saturday, President Obama announced that — this once — he’ll do what the Constitution commands. It doesn’t seem appropriate to praise him for that, but our standards have fallen so low that we’re now actually surprised when a president seeks congressional authorization before waging war.
Surprised — and, in some cases, outraged. “Weakest president since James Buchanan,” former Ambassador John Bolton fumed on Fox News: “Astounding! ... a very foolish thing.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., was downright insulted that Obama bothered to ask for congressional imprimatur: “The president doesn’t need 535 Members of Congress to enforce his own redline.”
The Constitution’s architect, James Madison, believed that “in no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature” — but what did he know? Modern practice has been to let the Tomahawks fly, Congress be damned.
The closest precedent to what the administration proposes in Syria is 1999’s air war over Kosovo, during which President Clinton ignored two congressional votes denying authorization, and became the first president to wage an illegal war beyond the War Powers Resolution’s 60-day time limit (with Libya in 2011, Obama became the second).
On April 28, 1999, the House voted no on declaring war 427-2, and no on authorizing the president to continue airstrikes against Serbia, 213-213. ‘‘The House is obviously struggling to find its voice,” Clinton’s National Security Council spokesman explained, “so we sort of just blew by’’ the House votes.
Clinton never wanted a vote; in contrast, on Saturday, Obama demanded that legislators stand and be counted: “All of us should be accountable… and that can only be accomplished with a vote.”
The growth of the Imperial Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed in his classic 1973 book on the subject, has been “as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation,” as legislators have ceded vast authority to the executive branch.
That’s a danger here in the Syria debate as well: The draft Authorization for Use of Military Force the White House released Saturday is appallingly broad.
There’s no “sunset clause,” and ground troops aren’t ruled out. It neither limits the president to striking Syrian forces, nor bans strikes outside Syria — it’s loose enough, as Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith points out, to allow the president to wage war against Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon, so long as “he determines” there’s some connection to WMD in Syria.
“A president will interpret an AUMF for all it is worth, and then some,” Goldsmith cautions. Indeed, the last two administrations have used the post-Sept. 11 AUMF to justify unrestricted surveillance, drone strikes against American citizens, and other actions never contemplated by Congress. In this case, why take the risk?
On Saturday, Obama maintained he has authority to act without Congress, and Secretary of State John Kerry echoed that claim the next day: “He has the right to do that, no matter what Congress does.”
Still, asking for a vote makes it a lot harder to ignore the results. Clinton had already been bombing Serbia for a month when House refused authorization for the air war in 1999. A “no” vote in this case won’t be “blown by” nearly so easily.
“You have to win the vote. You have to win,” a panicky senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal Saturday. “House Republicans are poised to say no on Syria,” the Washington Examiner reported Monday; “I may be wrong, but I don’t think the votes are even close,” said Rep. David Nunes, R-Calif.
Kerry says he “can’t contemplate” that Congress would say no. He better start.Washington Examiner columnist Gene Healy is vice president at the Cato Institute and author of "The Cult of the Presidency."