Obama Can Strike Syria Unilaterally

The attack on Libya two years ago offers a handy blueprint.

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PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP / Getty Images

Protestors outside of the White House call for U.S. President Barack Obama to act on the reports of chemical-weapons use by Syrian President Bashar Assad against his own people, in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 21, 2013.

Over the weekend, the White House declared that there is “very little doubt” that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad‘s forces used chemical weapons against his own people.

For better or worse, there’s also very little doubt that President Obama—should he choose to do so—can retaliate against Syrian targets for their use without approval from the American people, or their elected representatives in Congress.

Just like he did in Libya two years ago.

For Americans brought up to believe only Congress can declare—and pay for—war, it’s worth noting that such legal niceties have loopholes big enough to fly cruise missiles through.

And that is apparently what the U.S. military has in mind, as it beefs up its fleet of Tomahawk-cruise-missile-carrying warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a chip shot from dozens of military and government targets scattered across Syria. Four destroyers are loitering in the region, awaiting orders.

(MORE: The Two Big Reasons Obama Might Strike Syria)

At a news conference on Sunday in Malaysia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he’d prepared “options for all contingencies” at the President’s request. “We are prepared to exercise whatever option if he decides to employ one of those options.”

“I think it’s very evident that the regime has acted in this way,” Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told Fox News Sunday. “I think we will respond in a surgical way.” But he urged Obama to wait two weeks until Congress returns from its summer break to give any military attack its blessing. Don’t count on that happening.

A Reuters poll released over the weekend shows that 60% of Americans oppose U.S. intervention in Syria. Only 9% support U.S. military action.

That leaves Obama with a tough choice: do something most Americans don’t want done, or show that his warning to Assad last year—that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons would be a “redline” requiring a U.S. response—is a hollow threat.

The purported Syrian government action in a suburb of the capital of Damascus killed hundreds on Wednesday. If confirmed, it would represent the deadliest such attack since the late Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds a quarter-century ago. Syria’s government said on Sunday it had evidence that the rebels battling Assad had used the weapons. It warned that a U.S. military strike against government targets would “create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East.”

Syria said it would allow U.N. inspectors to visit the site of the attacks beginning Monday (their assignment is to determine only if chemical weapons were used—not determine who used them). U.S. officials suggested the move had come too late to avoid some kind of military response. The passage of time since the alleged attack means it will be tougher for the U.N. to investigate the possible use of chemical agents.

(VIDEO: Obama Blurs Red Line in Syria)

If Obama elects to attack, his downside is minimized because, Pentagon officials say, any such missile strike is likely to be of the “slap” variety—a barrage designed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons—but of insufficient magnitude or duration to force him from power.

That would let Obama say he has punished the Syrian strongman without committing the U.S. military to a long-term conflict. (Of course, the President also said Assad should leave office two years ago, but that’s a separate issue.)

Russia and Iran, Assad’s key allies, are paying close attention to the marker Obama put down last year. “America knows the limitation of the redline of the Syrian front,” said Massoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian military, according to Tehran’s Fars News Agency. “Any crossing of Syria’s redline will have severe consequences for the White House.”

Washington graybeards like to point out that only Congress can declare war, and only Congress can appropriate the funds to wage war. Technically speaking, that’s true. But it is also irrelevant.

The nation has been on a slippery slope for decades, steadily shifting the power to both launch and wage war away from Congress, and toward the President.

The last war Congress declared was World War II. Everything since—Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq (again!) and Libya—has been fought with something less than a full-throated declaration of war by the U.S. Congress.

Generally speaking, the President likes this, since he doesn’t have to convince Congress of the wisdom of his war, and Congress likes it even more. Under the current system, lawmakers get to wink at the White House by passing an authorization for the use of military force or other purported justification as a fig leaf they can abandon if things go sour. A declaration of war demands more, and Congress is leery of going on the record with such declarations for its own political reasons.

(MORE: White House Muted on Alleged Syrian Chemical Atrocity)

What about paying for the war? Doesn’t Congress have the so-called power of the purse? By snapping it shut, can’t lawmakers snuff out a war just as denying oxygen to a fire extinguishes it?

Theoretically, yes, especially in the case of a lengthy conflict. But the U.S. military spearheaded the war against Libya by tapping into funds already in the Pentagon’s wallet. The Obama Administration didn’t have to appeal to Congress for extra money for the conflict.

Obama wrote congressional leaders two days after the war against Libya began in March 2011, saying U.S. military action was needed “to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and address the threat posed to international peace and security by the crisis in Libya.” The U.S. strikes, he said, would be “limited in their nature, duration and scope” before the U.S. handed off command of the operation to NATO.

Actually, the initial U.S. strike involved launching 110 cruise missiles from U.S. warships and 45 bombs dropped from B-2 stealth bombers. Limited was a relative term.

Obama cited a U.N. resolution to justify the action, adding that the “United States military efforts are discrete and focused on employing unique U.S. military capabilities to set the conditions for our European allies and Arab partners to carry out the measures authorized by the U.N. Security Council resolution.”

He added that he ordered the attacks on Libya based on his “constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.” He said he was informing lawmakers of the war already under way “to keep the Congress fully informed, consistent with the War Powers Resolution.”

The 1973 law requires a President to notify Congress within 48 hours of launching military action, and bars U.S. armed forces from fighting for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without congressional approval.

The Founding Fathers might call that locking the barn door—after the dogs of war have fled its confines.

PHOTOS: The Plight of Syrian Refugees Magnified Outside Zaatari

108 comments
TheBradBlog
TheBradBlog

@TeekeeMon So as w prev tweet, u r citing WPA? This is a "nat'l emrgncy created by attack on US, territories, possessions, or armed forces"?

Chosun1
Chosun1

Given how much more quickly and lethally conventional war can be waged today than in the 1970s and the demonstrated uselessness of the Act, the timeframes and justifications for using military force under the War Powers Act should be severely limited by amendment.

tbu1mi
tbu1mi

Oh Congress, cower and tremble as the new Augustus rides forth, his armies before him. Lay back and fatten yourselves on the fruits of the fallen and dance to the lamentations of their woman and children.

PWollesen
PWollesen

@syllaraps I will now refer you back to the Obama quote in my Tweet that you originally replied to.

EmiMM22
EmiMM22

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PatrickJohnson
PatrickJohnson

The writer left out the fact that under the War Powers Act, the President is only allowed to use force under three conditions:

"The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."

Only under those conditions is the Commander in Chief allowed to unilaterally use force, after which he has 48 hours to notify Congress and explain the rationale.  The US is NOT being attacked.  The President is NOT authorized to order our forces into this conflict.

rezapci
rezapci

Sales for the world's 100 largest arms producers amounted to $411 billion in 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That was up 1% from the year before, a modest rise that was held in check by the drawdown of foreign forces in Iraq.

Military budgets have been largely unaffected by the economic downturn, said Susan Jackson of SIPRI, a peace research group.

Since 2002, arms sales among the 100 largest providers of military equipment and services have increased 60%, SIPRI said in a release last month.

The 10 biggest arms producers accounted for more than half of the 2010 sales. The composition of those sales reflects the state of modern warfare, as battles are now often fought with remote surveillance and air strikes instead of ground combat.

Of the 100 companies on the list, 44 are based in the United States. Sales by the U.S. companies accounted for more than 60% of arms sales revenue in 2010.

The top seven U.S. arms producers are also among Uncle Sam's 10 biggest contractors.

Click ahead for a closer look at the 10 global companies profiting most from war. @scstone5 So you war supporter are employed by these arms manufactures 

Nosferatis
Nosferatis

Who is USA to decide which country's resources it will annex the next? USA has left enough countries and cities in ruins in the past 10 years. Peace makers, come destroy everything with the name of democracy and leave the country to fight inside itself. 

Also isn't it perfect timing for someone in Syria to use chemical weapon when all eyes on Obama and USA after what Snowden told the world about US dirty tricks? Wag the dog.

milleralgm
milleralgm

Sounds like you author is watching too much FOX.  Libya was limited in scope and duration. No military personnel killed.  Unlike Bush/Cheney who lied causing over 4,000 USA military personnel deaths, 100,000's Iraqis killed and trillions in debt.

CraigJames
CraigJames

Who in the hell are we to start another war with another Middle Eastern country. We are not the ethical  world police and we should stop pretending we are. 


Obama - Nobel peace prize for what. We attack Syria - Obama should be impeached. Get a backbone Congress.

naiman
naiman

Mark Thompson conveniently omits the fact that the House rebuked Obama for violating the War Powers Resolution in the case of Libya. Whoops! Wasn't that a crucial omission? If that crucial fact had been included, would the tendentious headline "Obama Can Strike Syria Unilaterally" have been possible? How about trying to write a balanced article next time, quoting experts and Members from both sides of this debate? 

JohnNgueunyMajak
JohnNgueunyMajak

Time is now for the World not only the West to think about what is happening in Syria.it is a time for Obama and other world leaders  to send a clear signal to President BashaL Assad to stop killing incense people of Syria by using Russian chemical Weapons.The world community must standard together to stop this.It is for Syrians people now but it may  be us tomorrow.Leader is a leader when the people are in his or her heart  but you can not secure the leadership in expense of the lives of people because you have neighbor who is supper power why not killing her people using those chemicals but yours,you must think twice Mr. Assad.

davidwehbe
davidwehbe

We ended the war in balkans by Striking. We ended war is Kosovo by Striking. Yes some experiments do not turn out well ( iraq) but only because of evil neighbors like iran meddling. 5 million refugees, 120K dead, 500K wounded, neighboring countries about to explode, it is not a situation we turn away from. if anything, we have a moral duty to protect the weak and punish the aggressor, even at a cost. This war must be contained before Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and entire region is engulfed with war. why care? if insensitive to human suffering, then maybe your wallet is closer to your heart. Just ask your leader how much business we do with the middle east. 

RepPress
RepPress

And what do you think the Founding Fathers might call you Mr. Thompson? Here you are playing a dirty game which undermines out Constitution, the most important clause of our Constitution according to the Father of the Constitution. What give you the right to advocate for illegal actions? Even by the War Powers Act, such an action would be illegal because there has been no "national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces," so you should be ashamed of yourself Mr. Thompson. http://youtu.be/sgWO-IXF-uA

ChristopherJones1
ChristopherJones1

We do not need to intertwine with Syria. US does not always need to play world police! We need to worry about getting out of debt lowering the U.S debt. And get rid of Obamacare!

harry_van2000
harry_van2000

American government no long represent the people of America.  Good luck with this criminal activities.  Just don't ask people to be patriotic and support the troops.  They signed up for it.  Since American suffered little death they can keep on killing people around the world for their own agenda.  I hope Russia help the Syrian stand up to there terorists

bastermaboy
bastermaboy

As others have said, Assad isn't dumb enough to gas his own people with the U.N. teams a few miles away. Even if he did, U.S. shouldn't play world cop and bomb the Syrian Regime. Al Quaida wants to destroy Assad's regime. We'd only be doing the dirty work for them. Stay out of it Obama - don't turn this into another Iraq or Libya.

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

We're supposed to believe that President Assad is really, really stupid. He waits until a UN chemical weapons investigation team is in-country, and then employs chemical weapons! 

You believe that, I've got a bridge...

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

The alleged chemical weapon attack in Syria is as bogus as was the alleged pending humanitarian attack in Libya. Both are only an excuse for the U.S. do create more instability in MENA, because instability pays so well.

TeekeeMon
TeekeeMon

@TheBradBlog If Obama's response was full blown war (not a limited strike)... your "nat'l emergency" framing would be relevant. It isn't.

syllaraps
syllaraps

@PWollesen he was wrong when he said that in 2007. He legally isn't wrong if he took action now. War Powers Resolution of 1973.

Sim_Namore
Sim_Namore

@milleralgm Yes, and the fact that there were no personnel lost was one of the major points in the administration's justification for not complying with the War Powers Act.  I'm not being critical of the President for doing so because he's not alone.  The scope of our war with Iraq was an intended and necessary requisite of war profiteering in the most reprehensible and blatant manner possible.  Cheney's in-your-face corruption is without precedent in the U S--not even the Grant administration was that overtly corrupt.   Having said that, it's entirely possible, of course, to wage total war without losing a single soldier on the ground.  It's troubling that the way we enter into conflicts of this type and others is so convoluted and ill-defined.   I cannot be persuaded that the legislative branch has the authority to award such powers--it should not be allowed to cede its authority to the executive any more than the Supreme Court should be allowed to introduce legislation.   Further, the framers knew what war is and they gave the authority to make it only to Congress--and pointedly, not to the Chief Executive.   To skirt this and make what is abundantly clear, hazy and ill-defined, we redefine 'war' to suit the needs of the moment.   

CraigJames
CraigJames

@JohnNgueunyMajak Really a blithering idiotic rant.  Russian chemical weapons you say - and you have this proof do you. What I don't like is all the talking heads already claiming the government has used chemical weapons when that has not been established.  Yet we have washed up morons like Generalisimo Westley Clark talking about such things as though they have been established.  I'm an American but I do hope Russia keeps this warmongering current government in check - it's certainly needed.

rseibert1
rseibert1

@JohnNgueunyMajak Your a idiot!  Wake WTFU your a sleeping sheep! The rebel terrorist have been caught now numerous times with chemical weapons and why would Assad use them after being threatened by the west, he likes his power and doesn't want to lose it moron!  Do some reseach!?

CraigJames
CraigJames

@davidwehbe You call the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocents an experiment?  You can't possibly be this stupid - really?

chalupatime
chalupatime

@davidwehbe That's not the issue. The issue is Presidents (plural) unilaterally taking this country to war. If you want to intervene in Syria fine, but the decision must be made by Congress not the President. The Founding Fathers gave a lot of thought to this. They knew the executive branch was the branch that would push for war the most (and gee golly they were right!). 

The Senate and House of Representative are more representative of the American people (ideally) than one man, the President. 

As for the actual argument over intervention, if you really care about seeing as few people killed and maimed you would be against intervention. Intervention generally worsens situations not improves them. The idea of a the US as a knight in shining armor rescuing oppressed people is a crock. 

Sim_Namore
Sim_Namore

@bastermaboy I have to say, and surely you realize, that the differences in our involvements with those two countries are vast.  Correct?  I think Obama handled Libya about as well as anyone might.  How many troops did we lose?  Ah....that would be zero.   

rezapci
rezapci

@Don_Bacon No Don, they are stupid at Evil House to decide and look for excuse to attach another country for nothing Bull crap with as Iraq... I will contact my congressman to step forward and help to stop blood shield otherwise no more votes for criminals supporters on our community 

davidwehbe
davidwehbe

@Don_Bacon yes he is stupid. Syrians occupied Lebanon for 30 years and it is a well known fact, Alawites are dumber than a door nob.

TheBradBlog
TheBradBlog

@TeekeeMon According to what LEGAL AUTHORITY? Your OPINION that a President can use military force any time or way he chooses?

PWollesen
PWollesen

@syllaraps That's awfully convenient. I'll bet you were cheering him in 2007, now cheering the exact opposite position in 2013.

CraigJames
CraigJames

@JohnNgueunyMajak  And it's a sad damn thing in this United States that we have to hope the Russians can back us down. How obscene is that. I don't like Putin nor Russian foreign policy. It looks however much more reasonable than Obusha has.

BobWilliamKnight
BobWilliamKnight

what does the Bermuda Triangle and your mother got in common? They both swallowed a lot of seamen

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@davidwehbe@Don_BaconFill me in, genius-- what's a "door nob?"

Urban dictionary: nob -- A derogatory term for an individual or slang for a penis.

TheBradBlog
TheBradBlog

@TeekeeMon Okay. What is the President's LEGAL AUTHORITY for "limited strikes" then? (In lie of facts, ur condescension is impressive, tho.)

TeekeeMon
TeekeeMon

@TheBradBlog No. I just said "limited strike". That is certainly not "any way he chooses." You're hysterical. Settle down.

syllaraps
syllaraps

@PWollesen I'm all for civil conversation and debate, but don't assume things about me. You do not know me.

syllaraps
syllaraps

@PWollesen I said the same thing when Bush wanted to attack Iran and dems threatened with the impeachment card if congress wasn't consulted.