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…