Updated: October 1, 2013 6:24AM
President Barack Obama’s Hamlet-like agonizing over whether to attack Syria’s regime over its use of chemical weapons has reignited the old debate about whether a president can wage war without approval from Congress. Count me in the faction believing Obama should involve Congress before launching missiles at Bashar al-Assad’s military.
That would be consistent with the view candidate Obama held in 2008 when he declared, “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.”
That’s the “congressional” interpretation of the constitutional clause that “Congress shall have power . . . to declare war.” The “presidential” interpretation, which Obama acted on in ordering the 2011 bombing of Libya without so much as a by-the-way to Capitol Hill, is that the article making the president “commander in chief” and the executive responsible for foreign policy gives him the authority to initiate hostilities.
You can get a headache reading the legal arguments parsing each side. But it’s worth noting that in our two-century history, Congress has declared war only on five occasions, the last time in 1941 for World War II. We’ve fought a lot of wars since then — some big ones like Vietnam and Iraq (twice), some small ones like Libya and Grenada; some with congressional authorization, some not.
The convulsions and bitter divisions inflicted on the country by Vietnam prompted Congress to pass the 1973 War Powers Resolution in an attempt to rein in presidential initiative. It was enacted over Richard Nixon’s veto, and presidents since then viewed it as an usurpation of their authority and mostly ignored it.
That said, it seems to me that the best policy for a president flexing our military might is to do it with the consent of the people through their elected legislators. Obama’s previous go-it-alone war, Libya, didn’t turn out well. The overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi left Libya in chaos, which our enemies affiliated with al-Qaida exploited to murder four Americans, one of them the first U.S. ambassador killed in three decades.
More than 100 House members of both parties signed a letter calling on Obama to seek a vote before launching a military strike against Assad. In the Senate, Obama ally Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia, said, “Absent an imminent threat to United States national security, the U.S. should not be engaged in military action without congressional approval.”
Regrettably, none of the top leaders on Capitol Hill have called for Obama to call the vacationing Congress into special session. The failure of Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner to assert congressional prerogative is a disservice to Congress and voters.
I think Assad should be punished — and more severely than Obama probably intends — for massacring his people with nerve gas. Getting congressional buy-in is just as important — more important actually — than obtaining the international consensus Obama craves, and so far is failing to get. British Prime Minister David Cameron let Parliament vote and it rejected an attack. The American people also deserve to be heard — through a vote in Congress.