“The Congress shall have power … to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.”
That is Article 1, Section 8 of the Federal Constitution, making perfectly clear that it is Congress that decides when the nation goes to war. Yet, without any congressional consultation whatsoever, the U.S. under the Obama Administration is prepared to go to war in Syria, where fighting has been going on since 2011.
“We are prepared, we have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take, if he wishes to take any of the options he’s asked for,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel told the BBC. “We are ready to go, like that.”
Last year, President Barack Obama had warned the Syrian regime against the use of chemical weapons on Aug. 20, 2012: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president said a year ago last week. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Now with widespread reports that such weapons have indeed been used on the ground in Syria against civilians, the administration appears to be preparing to hold the government there accountable. In the meantime, Iran has threatened retaliation in the event of any attack on its satellite, Syria.
“We have not yet made a decision,” Obama said on Aug. 28 with no reference to seeking congressional authorization in an interview with PBS Newshour.
Underscoring the point, a bipartisan group of 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats signed a letter to Obama asking him “to consult and receive authorization from Congress before ordering the use of U.S. military force in Syria.”
In 2011, the U.S. similarly waged war in Libya without Congress’ approval, drawing criticism over whether Article 1 had been violated. The administration justified its response in a March 21, 2011 letter to members of Congress: “I have directed these actions, which are in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.”
But the Constitution provides no such grant of power to the executive to wage war on a whim. It says that after military force has been authorized by Congress, then the President is the commander in chief of the armed forces. He can order troops into battle, but only in a war that has been authorized under law by Congress.
Otherwise, it is just Obama’s war — an administration operating outside the legal confines of the Constitution to wage conflicts abroad of its own choosing.
Obama’s war in Libya, and now the imminent action to take place in Syria, fly in the face of not just the separation of powers, but the words of then-candidate Obama in 2008, who told voters on the campaign trail, “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.”
Vice President Joe Biden was even more explicit in December 2007, calling such a violation by any administration impeachable: “I want to make it clear and I made it clear to the president, if he takes this nation to war in Iran, without congressional approval — I will make it my business to impeach him.”
Forgotten now are those warnings. As it turned out, former President George W. Bush never went to war unilaterally in Iran after all. Nor did he in Iraq. That was a military action enacted by Congress in October 2002. Similarly, the war in Afghanistan was authorized by Congress in September 2001.
Agree or disagree with those actions by the Bush Administration, the debate in Congress at least gave the American people a voice via their elected representatives over the decision of whether to wage war or not.
No such consideration has been made in the subsequent Obama Administration in Libya and now, in Syria. Whether one supports the humanitarian mission there or not, opposes the use of chemical weapons or not, is irrelevant.
From Obama and Biden’s own lips we know what the Constitution used to say on matters of war. Now, we get to see if this regime has repealed the Constitution in full in order to justify yet another lawless act. If Obama wants to wage war in Syria, he has to ask permission from Congress.
Robert Romano is the Senior Editor of Americans for Limited Government.