The President’s Constitutional Incoherence on Syria

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On Saturday, President Obama laid out his case for a proper American response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  The president’s case, however, is shot through with inconsistencies.  The most glaring of these, as Matthew Frank points out in a very informative post at National Review Online, is legal or constitutional.

As Franck observes, Obama bizarrely claims to be seeking congressional “authorization” for military action in Syria while at the same time claiming that he, as president, already possesses the “authority” to order it.  But a president does not need to seek authorization for something he has the authority to do.  Conversely, to concede that Congress has a right to authorize the use of force is to admit that it has the right not to authorize it, in which case the use of force will not be authorized.  What then becomes of the president’s supposed “authority” here?

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Admittedly, the president’s call for congressional authorization is welcome from the standpoint of the person who believes in a limited executive war-making power.  If you think the president cannot use military force except pursuant to a declaration of war or when necessary to defend the United States against an imminent attack, then Obama’s apparent unwillingness to move forward without Congress’s support is a good thing.  This, however, does not change the fact that Obama’s call for congressional input is absolutely unintelligible on the principles he has put forward, and that according to those principles nothing good can come from such congressional input.

Congress will either vote to authorize military action in Syria or it will decline to do so.  If it does vote for such action, then, by Obama’s own lights, it will have set a precedent undermining presidential authority.  Congress will have presumed to tell the president that he needed its support to do something that he actually already had authority to do.  Thus Obama will hand down a diminished presidency to his successor.

On the other hand, Congress might not vote to authorize the use of force: the force resolution might fail to pass.  The president will then confront a choice whether to comply with Congress’s wishes or to order military action in defiance of Congress’s expressed will on the matter.  Either choice is harmful according to the arguments the president laid out on Saturday.  On the one hand, the president said that he agreed with members of Congress who thought their voices should be heard on this question.  If he goes ahead with military action after a force resolution fails to pass Congress, he creates the impression that Congress has a right to withhold an authorization, and that the president has a right to ignore them and go ahead anyway.

On the other hand, he also said that military action in Syria is necessary to American security and that he already has authority to order such action.  Accordingly, if Congress declines to authorize such force, and he complies with its position, he will be setting the precedent that an American president should expose the country to security risks even when he has authority to protect against them, for the sake of respecting the opinion of Congress.

Whatever you think about the question of the Syria intervention (count me as skeptical), the fact remains that the way the president is approaching this debate is actually creating public confusion about what makes the use of force constitutionally legitimate.  To that extent he is making our constitutional democracy weaker, contrary to his expressed intent in his Saturday speech.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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