In his Wednesday evening speech to the nation, President Barack Obama told Americans that he would consult with Congress about his new strategic plans to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He did not say, however, that he would go to Congress and ask them for a declaration of war. The Constitution, which he is pledged to uphold and defend, gives the right to declare war to the people’s representatives in Congress, not to the commander-in-chief.
Yet the question must be raised, and undoubtedly will be by more than a few members of Congress: Does Obama have the untrammeled right to declare war without their consent? Last week, former Senator Joseph Lieberman argued in the Wall Street Journal that he in fact can do so. The tension between the two branches of government, Lieberman argued, has always been “resolved in favor of presidential authority.” Congress can declare war, the senator says, but the president has “the inherent power to make war.”
The problem, however, is a serious one for Barack Obama, particularly because when he was in the Senate, he and other Democrats argued that the Bush intervention in Iraq was illegal and immoral and should quickly be brought to an end. We all remember the chant, “No Blood for Oil.” When Bush changed course and announced the surge, Obama unsuccessfully introduced the “Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007” in the Senate, seeking to deny the additional troops that Bush had requested and demanding that American troops be redeployed from Iraq by 2008. Under Obama’s bill, Congress would have held oversight over the president, who would have to report to them every 90 days. In a statement at the time, Obama argued that “no amount of American soldiers can solve the political differences at the heart of somebody else’s civil war.”
Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama also told the Boston Globe the following in a 2007 interview:
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. . . . In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
Obama won the White House promising to extract Americans from other nations’ civil wars. Last May, he said in a speech at the National Defense University, “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal” the 2001 law’s mandate that Congress passed to give the Bush administration the power to go into Iraq. He added, “I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further,” before insisting that “history” and “democracy” demand that “this war, like all wars, must end.”
How times have changed. Now Obama finds himself in the position of asking the American people to do just the opposite, by way of an extended “counter-terrorism operation” — as John Kerry called Obama’s war plans — without formal congressional approval or action. As Howie Carr asks so mockingly: “Whatever happened to Cindy Sheehan? Where is Code Pink? I haven’t seen an ‘Endless War’ bumper sticker in years, since 2009 to be exact.”
Obama’s spokesmen claim that the authority Congress gave George W. Bush in 2001 to move militarily against any country or force responsible for the 9/11 attacks is applicable to the present situation. As press secretary Josh Earnest argued, the president believes that the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) “continues to apply to this terrorist organization that is operating in Iraq and Syria.”
There is more than one problem with this analogy. Al-Qaeda attacked the United States directly, and America’s military reaction was a response to that specific act of war. ISIS has taken possession of an area surrounding Iraq and Syria larger than the state of Maryland, and has now some 30,000 troops on the march and ready for further battles. They also have American weaponry, a disciplined armed force, and a (short) record of functioning as an actual state in the territory they now possess. But they have not, as yet, attacked the United States itself. So by Obama’s own previous statement, fighting ISIS is not at present a response to an imminent danger or a matter of self-defense.