I’m beginning to understand why Cato’s Michael Cannon is frequently found tearing his hair out over Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times project ostensibly devoted to “sorting out the truth in politics.” When I look at how badly they’ve botched issues involving constitutional war powers, I feel his pain.
On Friday, the fact-checking organization weighed in on the legal debate over President Trump’s April 6 bombing of a Syrian airfield, with two essays concluding it was A-OK, constitutionally. “In some cases, people saying Trump needed congressional approval have gone too far” Politifact’s Lauren Carroll pronounces. For instance, Rep. Marc Pocan’s (D-WI) claim that there’s “no legal basis” for the strikes rates a full-on, needle-in-the-red “FALSE” on P-fact’s patented “Truth-o-Meter.” Tom Kertscher of Politifact Wisconsin asserts that: “For limited military activities like the missile strike, presidents can send in forces without approval from Congress.” You see, while the president may not have the legal authority to unilaterally launch a full-scale war, he can—if he thinks it’s a good idea, and assures himself it won’t bog us down—order up acts of war that don't rise to the level of war: a light dusting of cruise missiles—a micro-aggression, constitutionally speaking.
What’s the legal basis for that? Politifact takes nearly 2,000 words to explain it all to you, but their answers are pretty thin: 1. Maybe the commander-in-chief clause?; 2. Other presidents have gotten away with stuff like this in the past; 3. Their lawyers say it’s ok; and 4. the 1973 War Powers Resolution “creates a process to act first and ask for permission later.” I rate those claims 1. False; 2. Irrelevant; 3. Nice try; and 4. Pants on Fire.
Per Kertscher, “Experts agree that in limited instances, such as the Syrian missile attack, a president has legal authority provided in the Constitution as commander-in-chief.” But that clause, as Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, merely makes the president “first General and admiral” of US military forces, and does not extend “to the DECLARING of war.” And "experts" who believe it empowers the president to launch sudden attacks in the absence of an imminent threat are in the minority. Over at the Lawfare blog, Fordham’s Andrew Kent sums up the legal consensus: “at the core of the question—under the original meaning of the Constitution, who has the power to decide to initiate foreign war, the president or Congress?,” he writes, “the weight of evidence now tilts so strongly toward one view that the debate should be considered over. Under the best reading of the original understanding of constitutional war powers, President Trump's strike on Syria was patently unconstitutional.”
That the strike was "limited," and not the opening salvo in a full-scale war doesn't make a constitutional difference. If it did, leading war powers scholar Michael Ramsey asks, then “why did virtually everyone in the immediate post-ratification era think that limited naval warfare, as against France in the Quasi-War, required Congress' approval?” That included the bellicose, pro-executive Hamilton, who acknowledged that for President Adams to go beyond defensive acts protecting American shipping would "fall under the idea of reprisals & requires the sanction of that Department which is to declare or make war." Our first president even doubted his authority to take unilateral action against hostile Indian tribes, writing that “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”
This week marks the first anniversary of our latest war in the Middle East, but after some 5,000 airstrikes in two countries, and with 3,500 U.S. troops on the ground, we’ve yet to have an up-or-down vote in Congress on authorization for the use of military force against ISIS.
We’re recognizing—“celebrating” isn’t the right word—that unhappy anniversary at Cato with a talk by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who holds the unfashionable view that Congress ought to vote on the wars we fight, and has been waging a (sometimes lonely) battle to get his colleagues to live up to their most important constitutional responsibility. The event runs from 9:00-10:00 AM on Thursday, August 6, so you can hear about the erosion of congressional war powers and grab your morning coffee without getting to work too late; RSVP here.
President Obama announced the first wave of airstrikes in Iraq on August 7, 2014, and expanded the campaign against ISIS to Syrian territory in September. But it took him six months to send Congress a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force—along with a message insisting that “existing statutes provide me with the authority I need” to wage war anyway. Since then, as Senator Kaine recently noted, “Congress has said virtually nothing.” Recent headlines make that all too clear: “Congress avoids war debate as ISIL advances” (Politico, 5/28); “Islamic State War Authorization Goes Nowhere, Again” (Bloomberg, 6/9); “House kills measure to force debate on military force against ISIS” (The Hill, 6/11)…and so on.
In the debate over the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act last month, Senator Kaine noted that, in the bill, Congress addresses military minutia in “excruciating detail,” but, at the same time, “we don’t want to vote on whether the nation should be at war.” When Kaine cosponsored (with Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV)) an amendment to the NDAA “expressing the sense of the Senate that we should have an authorization debate about whether we should be at war with ISIL,” it was ruled out of order: “so barracks mold, yes; vehicle rust, yes; the athletic programs at West Point, yes;” he sums up, but “whether we should be at war, nongermane to the Defense authorization act. Interestingly, we even took a vote on the floor of the Senate in the NDAA about whether we should arm the Kurds in a war that Congress has not authorized that we could debate and vote on; but whether we should be at war we have not debated and voted upon.”
The president’s claim that he already has all the authority he needs to wage war with ISIS is, as Senator Kaine put it in an earlier speech, “ridiculous.” Its principal basis is the AUMF Congress passed three days after the 9/11 attacks and was intended to be used against those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11 attacks or “harbored” those who did. Its main targets were, obviously, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, yet now, nearly 14 years later, the administration insists it serves as legal justification for a war of at least three years, in at least two countries, against a group that is not only not a “cobelligerent” with Al Qaeda, but is engaged in open warfare against the group. Building on the Bush administration’s expansive interpretation of the 2001 authorization, the Obama administration has turned the 9/11 AUMF into an enabling statute for an open-ended globe-spanning war. “This is unacceptable,” Senator Kaine argues, “and we should be having a debate to significantly narrow that authorization” as well.
The decision to go to war is among the gravest choices a constitutional democracy can make. The Framers erected firebreaks to hasty action, designed to force deliberation and consensus before the resort to deadly force. As James Wilson put it to the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, “this system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power in declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.’’ Join us Thursday as we explore how Congress can take that power back.
Over at the National Interest, I have a piece examining President Obama’s claim, in his nationally televised address Wednesday night, that “I have the authority to address the threat from ISI[S].”
Just where he’s supposed to get that authority isn’t clear—even to the Obama administration itself. In the last week, Obama officials have invoked (1) the War Powers Resolution, (2) the 2002 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, and (3) the AUMF that Congress passed three days after 9/11. Any AUMF in a storm, it seems.
As I explain in the article, not one of those claims survives a good-faith reading of the relevant legislative text. The WPR specifically forecloses any interpretation that it grants the president a “free pass” for elective bombing. And invoking the 2001 or 2002 AUMF for a new war against a new enemy over a decade later is the sort of statute-stretching that makes using TARP to bail out car companies look timid by comparison.
You could describe the president’s approach as “three bad arguments in search of a theme.” Near as I can discern it, that theme is, “I’m not George W. Bush.”
Apparently, it’s very important to Barack Obama to make clear that he doesn’t subscribe to the Congress-be-damned, I’m the “Decider” approach of his predecessor. Justifying war on a pure presidential power theory is for bad people like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, the legal architect of the Bush-Cheney “Terror Presidency.” (Though, of course, Bush went to Congress for authorization in Iraq and Afghanistan, even while denying he needed it).
Obama’s nothing like that, he’ll have you know. He’s the guy who told us on the campaign trail that “The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers,” and affirmed that the president lacks the power to launch military attacks absent an “actual or imminent threat to the nation.” (His eventual veep, Joe Biden, went further, promising to “impeach [Bush] if he takes the nation to war against Iran without congressional approval.”)
And yet, it’s hard to escape the echoes of Obama’s predecessor in Wednesday night’s speech, from his case for preventive war against an enemy that “if left unchecked… could pose a growing threat beyond that region—including to the United States,” to his promise to “support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units” (When they stand up, we will stand down). As John Yoo himself said last week: “Obama has adopted the same view of war powers as the Bush administration.”
Tortured, bad-faith constructions of authorization passed by past Congresses for different wars can’t hide that underlying reality. Obama may not be George W. Bush, but he’s doing a pretty decent imitation.
Yesterday, I commented on the strikingly broad authority the Obama administration proposed in its draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria, and argued that Senate leaders' attempts to narrow the proposed authorization were misguided: "Congress shouldn't 'fix' what the president shouldn't have."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's revised AUMF, released this morning, hasn't changed my mind.
- They’ve added some adjectives to the operative clause, authorizing the president "to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner" (bespoke airstrikes?) against “legitimate military targets,” and tightened the stated goals somewhat. But again "he determines” whether those conditions have been met.
- They've added some time limits--60 days, with a one-time 30-day renewal if the president certifies he needs it—much like the limits in the War Powers Resolution. But recall that Obama blew past the WPR’s time limits two years ago in Libya, becoming the second president ever to do so. (Bill Clinton--like Obama, a former constitutional law professor--was the first. Remember, “Never Let Law Profs Near the Oval Office”)
- Worst of all, despite purporting to bar "the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations" (Sec. 3) and limit airstrikes to targets "in Syria," (Sec. 2(a)), the draft (unwittingly?) undermines those restrictions at the outset. The revised AUMF gives away the game in the last clause of Section 1 with a gratuitous and overbroad concession about the scope of the president's authority to use force without congressional authorization: "the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States." That's far broader than the WPR's description of the president's independent constitutional authority to take action in "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States... or its armed forces"--and broader than the original understanding that the president retained the power to "repel sudden attacks." The language in the Committee's draft AUMF implicitly endorses a power to launch sudden attacks when the president deems them in "the national security interests of the United States."
Former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith calls it "the broadest such clause I have ever seen"--"the draft AUMF enhances, through congressional recognition, the President’s claims of independent constitutional authority to use force in Syria." Coupled with other provisions in Section 1 affirming that Syria's possession and use of unconventional weapons "constitute a grave threat to . . . the national security interests of the United States,"--that phrase again--it gives President Obama additional cover to go beyond what's authorized in the resolution--flouting the time limits, introducing ground troops, striking targets outside of Syria, and the like.
Goldsmith sums up: "If the Senate draft becomes law, the President should be very pleased." Americans, who are rightly sick of Middle Eastern entanglements and Tomahawk humanitarianism, will likely have a very different view.
Whatever his motivations, it’s good that President Barack Obama has departed from past practice—let the Tomahawks fly and Congress be damned—and gone to the people’s representatives so they can stand and be counted.
But, as I note in today's Washington Examiner, that vote isn’t without danger. The draft authorization for the use of military force the administration circulated Saturday is strikingly broad. And if we know anything from the history of past AUMFs, it's that presidents will push the authority they’re given as far as language will allow—and possibly further.
In his Rose Garden press conference Saturday, Obama said “we would not put boots on the ground.” The action he’s contemplating would be “limited in duration and scope.” Just a “shot across the bow”—a light dusting of cruise missiles.
The draft AUMF says no such thing:
- It authorizes the president to use U.S. “armed forces,” not just air power.
- He can do that “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate,” so long as it’s “in connection” with use of unconventional weapons in Syria—and again, he determines what connection exists.
- It doesn’t limit him to striking Syrian government forces, and it doesn’t limit him to Syria. It’s loose enough, as former Bush Office of Legal Council head 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.
- And it doesn’t contain a “sunset clause” time-limiting the authority granted—which means that authority will be available for future presidents as well.
As a reminder, here's LBJ announcing his decision to go to Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, piously intoning that "we Americans know, though others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war."
President Obama's abrupt decision to seek authorization from Congress before ordering attacks on Syria has elicited speculation about what motivated this apparent change of heart. After all, the president didn't seek Congress's approval before ordering attacks against Muammar Qaddafi's forces in Libya in March 2011. Back then, members of the administration claimed—erroneously, as Louis Fisher points out here (.pdf)—that they had all the authority they needed from UN Security Council resolution 1973. It was a very thin reed on which to build a case for war, but administration officials teamed up with hawks on both the left and right to turn aside the objections of dovish Democrats and "Kucinich Republicans," as the Wall Street Journal's editors called them.
Obama couldn't shelter behind the UN this time around, and Congressional opposition arose much faster and stronger than I anticipated as recently as last week. Even some Democrats, most notably Virginia's Sen. Tim Kaine, voiced concern about the president's apparent intention to circumvent the people's elected representatives. The British Parliament's rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron's call for air strikes was a further blow, both in that it denied the United States a credible ally (only France remains), and highlighted the uncomfortable fact that most democracies have a debate before going to war.
So now the attention turns to Congress, with many members still on recess, but a number returning early to Capitol Hill for briefings and hearings. Those handicapping the sentiment in Congress claim that the president lacks the votes today to secure a victory, but he has a full week to change minds and twist arms. Some of the 190+ members who signed at least one of two letters, or issued a statement, calling on the president to go to Congress before launching an attack will be satisfied to have been included in the process. Sen. Kaine expressed this sentiment today. Party leaders may not whip the vote, but Obama will be assisted by the pro-intervention chorus, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and by the signatories to this letter issued last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative. The pro-Obama team will include an unlikely ally: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who declared last night on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 that a vote against Obama would be effectively a vote for Assad. There will be more of this in the week ahead.
It will be hard for the opponents of intervention in Syria to prevail given that many Democrats can be expected to side with the president, and a number of Republicans still prefer the interventionists' talking points, even if they know they are unpopular back home.
After months of hand-wringing, the Obama administration appears poised to intervene militarily in Syria. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry cited clear evidence of chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and pledged that the United States would hold Assad accountable for a “moral obscenity.” Others have chimed in this morning in agreement. The editorial writers at USA Today declare that Assad’s action “demands” a “precise strike” in response.
As I explain in an “opposing view”:
The desire to "do something" in Syria is understandable. The gut-wrenching images of the dead, including the young, have rocketed around the world. To casual observers, it seems obvious that a country as rich and militarily powerful as the United States must be able to stop the violence.
But the truth is that not even the United States can solve Syria's problems.
The American public remains strongly opposed to military intervention of any type, and the people’s representatives in Congress generally reflect these sentiments. Unfortunately, presidents can, and usually do, ignore the public’s wishes. President Obama, following the example of his predecessors, has undertaken numerous military operations without securing congressional approval, and he has done so even in the face of clear and bipartisan opposition. (Libya, for example).
A few on Capitol Hill will occasionally complain, as some did yesterday, but a groundswell among members of Congress to affirm their constitutional responsibilities is unlikely, and certainly won’t happen quickly enough to halt what appears to be imminent military action.
But the strongest reason why President Obama should ignore the voices calling for military action is because such intervention is unlikely to achieve anything constructive, and may well do great harm. While the president has the ability to launch air attacks, he is unable to affect the political realities on the ground in Syria that have sustained a brutal and bloody civil war for nearly two and a half years.