As President Barack Obama weighs military action in Syria, it remains unclear whether he will first seek congressional authorization.
It is clear, however, that Obama once thought such authorization was necessary.
“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,” candidate Obama told The Boston Globe in late 2007. He added that the president can only act unilaterally in “instances of self-defense.”
“It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action,” Obama continued.
President Obama did not seek congressional approval for his military strikes against Libya in 2011. That bombing campaign led to longtime dictator Muammar Gadhafi’s ouster.
Vice President Joe Biden, who voted for the Iraq War, agreed with Obama.
“The president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war… unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked,” Biden said in 2007.
Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, suggested presidential war-making was an impeachable offense.
This was not a new position for Biden. He delivered a speech before the Senate outlining Congress’ powers to declare war back in 1998.
“Given this,” Biden said at the time, “the only logical conclusion is that the framers intended to grant to Congress the power to initiate all hostilities, even limited wars.”
Obama and Biden aren’t the only administration officials whose past comments will be parsed if strikes are ordered on Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the Syrian government would have to answer for the “moral obscenity” of chemical weapons use, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said troops are “ready to go” to Syria at the president’s command.
But in 2008, Kerry and Hagel, then U.S. senators, co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “It’s Time to Talk to Syria.”
“Syria’s leaders have always made cold calculations in the name of self-preservation, and history shows that intensive diplomacy can pay off,” Kerry and Hagel wrote.
“The ultimate challenge — moving Syria away from its marriage of convenience with Iran — will certainly not happen overnight,” they continued. “But it’s telling that Iran lobbied Syria not to negotiate with Israel and that Syria decided to proceed regardless.”
The senators urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and President George W. Bush to emulate their fathers’ cooperation during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“While many doubt Syria’s intentions, we have real leverage and some inducements that have more value to Syria than cost to us,” Hagel and Kerry wrote. “There is no guarantee of an agreement, but the potential payoff is huge, and our current policy is failing.”
Kerry and Hagel both voted for the Iraq War, which they subsequently opposed.
“We must move beyond the mindset of perpetual war,” President Obama said in Berlin in June.
Military action against Syria could come as soon as Thursday, according to multiple reports.
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