Thoughts on President Obama’s Speech on Syria

In many ways, Presidents Obama’s speech reflects well on him and his administration. Indeed, I think it was among his best since it wasn’t just about relatively meaningless sentiment but a nice mix of political thought and policy detail.  Plus it is the right thing to do regardless of how we feel about the particular case at hand.  However, I think that he decided to go to Congress largely because he was shamed into doing so by the British example which showed us how a democracy ought to behave when it comes to the decision to go to war.  But (and more) importantly, the result will be one more consistent with the rule of law given that the U.S. Constitution demands that Congress authorize the use of force (whether in terms of a formal declaration of war or otherwise). 

If we wish to remain a government under law and one acting consistent with the enumerated powers of the Constitution, the President cannot simply make this decision on his own.  Indeed, consultation with Congress is not enough to satisfy the law of the land.  (I even consider the War Powers Act – the one that many Republicans and conservatives consider to be too binding on the executive branch – to be unconstitutional because Congress itself cannot surrender to the President an ounce of its enumerated power in this area).  Given this, I found the opening clause of the following statement in the President’s address to be flatly wrong and inconsistent with our Constitution:

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. 

The second part of the sentence is probably true and thus the President’s decision to ask Congress for approval is quite welcome.  However, it would have been a great moment in the history of our country – and a critical step back to the original Constitutional order – if he had accepted without reservation the necessity of seeking Congressional approval before a President can use force (except in the case of an actual or imminent attack on the United States).   Indeed, it would have gone down as perhaps his greatest act as President; he could have turned the tide on the imperial presidency that candidate Obama derided only a few years ago. 

Nonetheless, those who demanded that the President seek Congressional approval have won this battle and hopefully it will set a precedent through which we can win the war (though the same Constitutional order invites Presidents to violate it given the blunt instruments Congress has to defend its powers against a grasping executive).  So thank you Mr. President. 

Now onto the battle over what Congress should or should not authorize…

 

One thought on “Thoughts on President Obama’s Speech on Syria

  1. In many ways, Presidents Obama’s speech reflects well on him and his administration. Indeed, I think it was among his best since it wasn’t just about relatively meaningless sentiment but a nice mix of political thought and policy detail. Plus it is the right thing to do regardless of how we feel about the particular case at hand. However, I think that he decided to go to Congress largely because he was shamed into doing so by the British example which showed us how a democracy ought to behave when it comes to the decision to go to war. But (and more) importantly, the result will be one more consistent with the rule of law given that the U.S. Constitution demands that Congress authorize the use of force (whether in terms of a formal declaration of war or otherwise).
    I strongly disagree with this statement and much of argument that follows from it.
    I submit that the President simply does not understand or lacks the courage to defend and explain the difference between a Parlimentary and a Presidential system with separation of powers. Cameron is a first among equals and is an agent of the Parlimentary majority. He has no separate electoral base and no distinctive constitutional authorities. This is not the case with the American President and he should not in any way feel bound to follow the British lead. Even the President claims that he has executive authority to act on his own independently of Congress, per the provisions of the War Powers Act. This ill conceived act passed in the wake of Vietnam at least recognizes that there are many situations to which the President responds as the only official of the government capable of doing so. Clearly an objective assessment of this situation would regard this as relevant. It seems to me that the President has chosen to make something else more relevant in the form of his own political ambitions and his continuing desire to transform the American health care system, in part by the exercise of powers and the taking of actions normally associated with what you term the imperial presidency. I find it abhorrent that the President would willingly accept limitations on his political power to act if he is intent on carrying out a limited punitive action to up hold an international norm and to make a point with Assad. He would be on much stronger constitutional grounds if he simply used the inherent authority that even the War Powers Act recognizes.
    This action will set a very dangerous precedent for the future. Going forward it will be very hard for any President faced with a real threat to vital national interests to act with the speed and secrecy required. This will be a very high price to pay for a Presidential abdication of authority in a situation in which he clearly has the right and the duty to respond. This is not an argument for the contemplated action in Syria, rather it is an expression of concern over the narrowing of the scope of Presidential authority in an area where executive discretion is of the utmost importance.
    I find it very disturbing from a second perspective. Any President who does not exercise the authority that he and needs and passes the buck to Congress may face a situation comparable to that of the Bushes. In both of the wars against Iraq the Presidents were forced to greatly exaggerate the magnitude of the threat and the scale of the response required. A President who retains his authority for limited military action does not have to exaggerate the threat. My prediction is that over the next few days the President will begin to raise the stakes in order to persuade a reluctant Congress. The higher the stakes the more expansive the response and the greater the danger of “war” which goes far beyond the limited strike that the President now appears to prefer. Thus we should prefer that the President uphold the principles of separation of powers by exercising his constitution and legislative authority to command the armed forces and defend the US while leaving the Congress free to pass on his actions after the fact under the constitutionally sound War Powers Act.

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