President Obama insists that he wants Congress to be “a full partner” in the decision on whether to bomb Syria, and that his push for a congressional yes is not just “an empty exercise.” OK, fine. But if Congress ultimately says no, will he go to war anyway?
That’s a critically important question. Good luck trying to get a straight answer.
Obama was twice asked that question during a Friday press conference; in response, he went into bob and weave mode: “It would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate.” And yesterday his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, dutifully dodged the question on the Sunday shows – five shows actually, in what amounted to a talking-head pentathlon.
On NBC News, McDonough parried the question by saying, “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals.” On CBS News, he rebuffed the question by saying, “I’m not going to engage in any hypotheticals here.” On Fox News, he finessed the question by saying, “Let’s not pile hypothetical on top of hypothetical.” On CNN, he declined to recognize that Congress might vote no: “If members of Congress want…to say that there should be consequences for (using chemical weapons), then they’re going to have to vote yes.” On ABC News, he simply brushed off the question by saying, “We’re focused on the national security (issue) before us.”
Translation: Obama might just decide on his own to launch military strikes – with or without Congress’ OK.
Obama, by refusing on Friday to entertain the question, pointedly passed up the chance to rule out unilateral action. McDonough, in sync with the boss, did the same. And so did Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, who told NPR on Friday: “The president, of course, has the authority to act, but it is neither his desire nor his intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him.”
Not his “desire” or “intention?” Parse that sentence, and you find plenty of unilateral wiggle room. But if you want something more definitive, here’s what Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday, during a Huffington Post interview: Regardless of what Congress decides, Obama “reserves the right in the presidency to respond as appropriate to protect the security of our nation.”
So I can’t help but wonder: If Obama “reserves the right” to bomb Syria in the event that Congress refuses to partner with him, then why is he bothering to seek Congress’ approval in the first place?
And if he “reserves the right” not to be bound by the citizens’ representatives, doesn’t that reveal his wooing of Congress to be an “empty exercise?”
The issue of presidential warmaking power is quite murky. But lots of legal experts dispute the notion that Obama has the power to act unilaterally; they reject the widely held view that commander-in-chief clout is inherently elastic. For instance, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin contended yesterday that the president “needs some sort of authorization” in this case – if not from Congress, than at least from NATO or the U.N. – because “there is no direct threat to American nationals or national security.” (Tea-partying Sen. Ted Cruz, interviewed yesterday, echoed Toobin. It’s a rare day when those two are on the same page).
And Michael Glennon, an international law professor at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says likewise. He argued the other day that “the president does not have the authority under the Constitution to launch a military attack on another country, absent an emergency created by the imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States.” (The public seems to agree. According to a new CNN/ORC poll, released today, 7 in 10 Americans oppose the idea of bombing Syria without congressional approval.)
A big political risk for Obama is that if Congress says no and he proceeds regardless, the prospects for cooperation on the other big autumn issues (budget, debt ceiling, immigration reform) could be dimmer than the Phillies. Plus, the House’s Obama-haters could gum up the works even further with impeachment talk. Secretary Kerry was asked about this scenario yesterday, but of course you know what he said: “I am not going to speculate about it.”
By the way, Kerry also said that if Obama does decide to drop bombs despite a congressional no, rest assured that “the plan is appropriately and unbelievably limited and tailored in its scope, so that it is not going to war – it is a limited action.”
Gee. I feel better already.
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