British prime minister David Cameron has recalled Parliament from summer vacation for a special session on Thursday, where there will be “a clear government motion and vote on the United Kingdom’s response to chemical weapons attacks,” Cameron promised on Twitter.
President Obama has a different view. The U.S. government’s Voice of America reports: “Pressed about calls for congressional authorization, White House spokesman Jay Carney Tuesday indicated the president believes consulting with congressional leaders is enough.”
Oh my, how liberals have learned to love the imperial presidency they used to so scorn when Richard Nixon or George W. Bush was in office. This week, I appeared on Lou Dobbs Tonight with Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant whose clients have included the late Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, our current secretary of state. Armed with the latest Democratic talking points, she dismissed any need for Obama to consult with what she dismissed as “a special Congress.”
Marsh is worth quoting at length:
There is a special Congress that we’re dealing with right now that has the lowest popularity rating in history and Republicans who overwhelmingly would oppose taking any action. The president of the United States cannot be handcuffed by the same Republicans that are holding the rest of the country hostage on every other issue. That is wrong.
She then dismissed the fact that President Bush sought a vote authorizing combat operations in Iraq in 2002. He won approval from both houses, including a hostile Senate controlled by obstructionist Democrats. That was clearly “a special Congress.” But Marsh was unimpressed with that argument: “President Bush was clearly looking for political cover — he got it. And so many of the people who voted for those wars now regret it.”
That makes no sense. What if we wind up regretting the intervention in Syria should its terrorist ally Hezbollah or the Iranian government react to the strike by attacking the U.S. or Israel? A cruise-missile strike that makes us feel good and restores President Obama’s credibility could soon lead to all-out war. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich notes:
“There is no victory to be had there. Syria is not the greatest threat in the Middle East to the U.S. or world security. The Iranian regime is working every day to get a nuclear weapon. It poses a direct threat to Israel’s survival and a long-term threat to America.
President Obama, who taught about the separation of powers at the University of Chicago Law School, was quite clear on abuses of executive power when he ran for president in 2008.
“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,” he told the Boston Globe in a candidate questionnaire in late 2007. He added that the president can only act unilaterally in “instances of self-defense.”
Vice President Joe Biden, now a cheerleader for an immediate strike against Syria, used to feel the same way. “The president has no constitutional authority to take this nation to war . . . unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked,” Biden said in 2007.
Republican congressman Tom McClintock of California says that both Obama and Biden were right back when they didn’t control the Pentagon. “The president’s authority as commander-in-chief to order a military attack on a foreign government is implicitly limited by the Constitution to repelling an attack,” he said in a statement.
The authors of the Constitution were explicit on this point. As James Madison noted, “In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. . . . Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded.” Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist that there was a clear distinction between the U.S. president’s authority as commander-in-chief, which involved “nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces” and that of the British king, who could declare war unilaterally.
How ironic it would be if this country were to be plunged into a possible “war of unintended consequences” by the actions and will of a single man while the British prime minister thinks it important to consult with and receive support from his nation’s elected representatives before undertaking such a momentous act.
In 1781, the British troops at Yorktown had their band play the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” as they marched out to surrender to George Washington. Sadly, it appears the tables are now turned as we pay less heed to prudence and the rule of law than our monarchical forebears do.
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John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.