Obama has no authority to launch unilateral military action
Published: Thursday, September 5, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 5, 2013 22:09
President Obama recently announced that he would to seek Congressional authorization for military action in Syria. While this may seem like an acknowledgement of the limits of presidential power, he made contradictory statements that strongly asserted the president’s authority to unilaterally launch military action. He claimed, “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.” If President Obama believes he already has the authority to initiate military action, it is not authorization that he is seeking from Congress. Should Congress not authorize military action, President Obama believes that he would still have the authority to proceed. The president is seeking affirmation, not authorization, in order to strengthen public support for his policy. A supportive vote in Congress would also aid the president by sharing responsibility should this military action lead to unfortunate consequences.
President Obama’s statements hold dangerous implications for our national security and for the separation of powers in our government. He claims that the president, acting solely through his own personal judgment, has the authority to launch missile strikes in any area of the world that his discretion warrants without recourse to the people’s elected representatives. Actions taken under this authority could put American citizens in jeopardy should there be a retaliatory response from the country attacked. Though no one can foresee the international response to an attack made under the president’s unilateral determination, an exchange of hostilities, however limited, has the potential for grave consequences and perhaps even total war. All of these eventualities may follow from the decision of the president, yet President Obama believes he is not required to obtain authorization from the people’s representatives in undertaking actions that could have dire implications for the American people.
National security concerns aside, the president’s statements illustrates an alarming misunderstanding of the president’s role in government. The presidency is an executive position, not a policymaking position. While the Constitution recognizes the president’s role as head of state in dealing with foreign governments, it also places limits on the foreign policy decisions the president can make unilaterally. The president may negotiate treaties, but they may not be ratified unless the Senate grants its approval. Similarly, Congress has the power to declare war and the president has the power to execute the war as Commander in Chief. Some point to the Quasi War with France and the Barbary Wars as examples of the president’s unilateral authority to launch military action. While Congress did not issue formal declarations of war in either, both Adams and Jefferson did not act before receiving statutory authorization from Congress. While a formal declaration has not always been required, the assent of Congress in military action has traditionally been a cornerstone of the separation of powers. Congress, not the president, is vested with the power to initiate military action because as a representative body it best embodies the will of the people. Allocating this power to the president takes control away from American citizens and subverts the democratic process.
In recent decades, however, presidents have openly ignored this limit on presidential power. During the Vietnam War, President Nixon launched attacks into Cambodia without the consent of Congress. In response to this action, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which defined the Constitutional limits on the war powers of the president. It prescribed that the president could take military action abroad only if Congress passes a declaration of war, if Congress gives statutory authorization or if an emergency situation is created by an attack on the United States. In the third scenario, the president must notify Congress within 48 hours of taking action and must gain Congressional authorization if the conflict exceeds 60 days. Presidents have frequently denounced the War Powers Resolution and have continued to initiate military action unilaterally. President Clinton participated in the NATO bombings in Kosovo without Congressional approval and President Obama engaged in the Libya airstrikes without authorization. Obama’s unilateral decision to intervene in Syria may be defended by some as constitutional based on these precedents. However, the United States is not governed by common law, but by a written Constitution. Repeated unconstitutional acts by the executive should not be a reason for discarding our respect for the separation of powers and popular sovereignty.