On Tuesday, a 2007 quote from then-Sen. Joe Biden popped up again.
“I want to make clear and submit to the United States Senate pointing out the president has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran,” Biden said on the campaign trail, in response to a hypothetical question about what he would do if then-President George W. Bush ordered a strike on Iran.
“And I want to make it clear, I want it on the record, and I want to make it clear, if he does, as chairman of the foreign relations committee and former chair of the judiciary committee, I will move to impeach him.“
That quote, along with other past positions from President Barack Obama on the subject of war and Congressional authorization, have come under renewed scrutiny as the U.S. prepares to wage an offensive in Syria — which, now, is only a matter of time away. Obama shows no signs of waiting for Congressional authorization and is instead preparing to unilaterally authorise strikes, despite the lack of an immediate threat to the U.S. — though the White House argues it does meet that test.
On Tuesday, the White House and Biden were sounding the drums for war. Speaking at the American Legion National convention in Houston, Texas, Biden said there was “no doubt” the Assad regime had been responsible for a recent chemical-weapons attack that killed hundreds of people. He vowed that Assad would be “held responsible.”
Flash back to the same 2007 presidential campaign, however, and Obama himself also outlined, specifically, presidents could authorise attacks without Congressional approval.
He was asked this possibility by the Boston Globe about Iran. Here’s the relevant portion of his answer (emphasis added):
Q: In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)
The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorise a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defence, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorised and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
Obama already has established a precedent in his presidency for disregarding that pretty firm statement. In 2011, Obama authorised the U.S. to become part of an international coalition that established a no-fly zone in what was then an escalating conflict in Libya to prevent attacks against civilians.
In a 32-page report to Congress, the Obama administration attempted to outline why it had not gone beyond its Constitutional authority, saying it was “consistent” with the War Powers Resolution of 1973:
As the President explained, much was at stake when Qadhafi began attacking his people and threatened to show “no mercy” to the city of Benghazi and its population of 700,000: “In this particular country – Libya – at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.” The United States and its international partners acted decisively and with unprecedented speed to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a nofly zone.
It’s important to note that in today’s situation in Syria, most Congressional leaders aren’t seeking to authorise the actions. Though some from both the left and the libertarian right are needling Obama to wait until Congress can vote, both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi released statements saying Obama should closely consult with Congress on the mission’s actions and objectives.
The use of a variation of “consult” is important — it suggests that they are not seeking a vote, and may not even want one.
By Wednesday morning, however, at least 37 members of Congress had signed onto a letter spearheaded by Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) that urged him to call Congress back before making any decision.
“Congress is not a potted plant in this process, and President Obama should call us back into emergency session before authorizing the use of any military force,” Rigell said in a statement. “We stand ready to share the burden of decisions made regarding U.S. involvement.”
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