A Short Response to Ilya Somin: Does Self-Defense Mean the U.S. Can Invade and Occupy Syria?

by Julian Ku

Ilya Somin has updated his post at the Volokh Conspiracy to include my critique, and his response to my critique. I just want to add two more points to our little debate on the domestic legal effect of the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article V collective self-defense clause before we put it to rest. (For those of you looking for a broader discussion on the Paris attacks than our legal parsing, I recommending joining this Federalist Society teleforum today here at 2 p.m. EST).

1) Ilya argues that “[w]hile the use of force is discretionary under Article 5, treating an attack on an ally within the designated area as if it were an attack on the US itself is not… And in the event of an enemy attack on the US itself, the president has the legal authority to use force of his own volition, without additional congressional authorization”.

This is an interesting point, and I agree with Ilya that the President can use military force to defend the U.S. without going back to Congress.  So Ilya is reading Article V as a pre-authorization to the President to defend treaty allies with military force as if it were an attack on the United States.But this reading calls into question how much military force the President can use under this “pure” self defense rationale.  Surely, President Bush was authorized to defend U.S. territory on 9/11 and its immediate aftermath.   But did the 9/11 attacks also authorize the President to start bombing, and then to invade Afghanistan, without going back to Congress?  In other words, does the self-defense rationale allow all offensive actions against the attacker up to and including invasion and occupation of another country?

Similarly, do the Paris attacks(assuming Article V were invoked) allow President Obama to launch military strikes (and maybe invade and occupy) Syria?  Surely, the President could have ordered U.S. forces to defend France without Congress. But I’m just not sure the Article V self-defense rationale gets Ilya all the way to a full-scale war on ISIS.

2) On a historical note, Ilya takes issue with my characterization of the legal rationale for Article V as allowing the U.S. and its allies to comply with the UN Charter’s rules on the use of military force.  He argues that “[t]he true main purpose of Article 5 is to commit the signatories to a system of collective defense against attack…”

I don’t disagree that this was Article V’s “main” purpose, but my original post was focused on the legal purpose of Article V.  On that front, I think it is safe to say Article V was about ensuring NATO was in compliance with the then-new UN Charter, and much less about re-allocating war powers under the U.S. Constitution.

I should hasten to add that I am in favor of a robust military response to the Paris attacks (actually, I was in favor of a robust response before the Paris attacks too).  And unlike Ilya, I think the President has broad powers under the Constitution to use military force without explicit congressional authorization.  I just don’t think collective self-defense treaties like Article V are needed to authorize unilateral presidential action against ISIS.


4 Responses

  1. It would be a continuation of treaty-based collective self-defense under U.N. Charter, art. 51, which the President can execute under U.S. Const., art. II, sec. 3 — see http://ssrn.com/abstract=2061835
    The North Atlantic Treaty adds another treaty-based layer, given the armed attacks by the NSA ISIS on France, etc.
    Recall Ron Reagan’s 30-minute war with Libya in 1986 (using UN 51); GHW Bush’s use of force in Panama in 1989 (partly re: UN 51); Bill Clinton’s use of UN 51 self-defense in 1998 against al Qaeda in Afghanistan; his use of force in Bosnia-H in 1994 under NATO and UN S.C. authorizations, etc.

  2. Julian: how about the claims of Govs. from Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and Texas that they can ban immigrants from Syria — treaties of the U.S. and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Const.? There is no retained 10th Amendment power of States re: treaty law of the United States or congressional legislation.

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