It looks like President Obama learned his lesson. Last summer he decided to seek Congress’s advance approval for a strike against Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities. Political support for the operation evaporated. Obama looked weak and waffly (the decision was taken on a dime after a 45-minute South Lawn stroll with chief of staff Denis McDonough, almost certainly not vetted through the legal chain of command). Even though the ISIS operation will probably be more significant than what he had in mind for Assad, he won’t be looking for a formal nod from Congress.
In the run-up to the decision (which will likely be announced in his speech Wednesday night) there emerged a nearly unanimous chorus of voices — scholars, lawmakers, commentators — arguing in favor of advance congressional authorization. Among law profs, those pressing the case included Jack Goldsmith, Harold Koh, Ilya Somin, Steve Vladeck and Jennifer Daskal. Tim Kaine and Ted Cruz agreed on this one. The Atlantic’s Conor Freidersdorf had this stinging column pressing for a congressional mandate.
Why Obama is better served bucking this consensus:
1. Authorization would not have been easy to get. Most sane people agree that ISIS presents a threat that needs to be addressed. Prospective military action against the entity enjoys high levels of US popular support.
But that doesn’t mean Congress would have handed Obama the authorization he sought, even on a narrowly tailored basis. Remember, Congress is totally dysfunctional. GOP members facing reelection in November may be loath to do anything that supports the President. The tradition of politics stopping at the water’s edge seems quaint.
If an authorization measure were voted down, Obama would have boxed himself into a corner. Either he would have backed down, with US (and global) security taking the hit. Or he could have persisted with the action on a lonely and legally shaky basis. Although he would surely have framed a request for congressional authorization as constitutionally discretionary (as he did with Syria), that line would have rung hollow in the wake of rejection. This is a context in which actions speak louder than words. The legitimacy of any military action following a failed authorization would have been undermined at home.
And what would Congress’s approval have won him, assuming he got it? Politically, not much. Congress’s favorability ratings are at all-time lows (it is less popular than the U.S. going communist). Anything that can get through Congress now must by definition be so popular that Congress’s approval is itself like a single candle on a crowded cake. That small reward wasn’t worth the significant downside risk of a rebuffed request.
2. Seeking congressional okay would have set a terrible precedent for the future. Leaving aside direct attacks on the United States, there won’t be an easier case for military strikes than against the Islamic State, whose brutality has provoked international revulsion. Most future cases will involve adversaries not nearly so scary. The rise of Rand Paul Republicanism will raise the bar for authorizing any military action, however well advised. Imagine a close case arising during a GOP primary season. If President Obama had asked today, his successors would have had to ask tomorrow.
In that respect, he’s lucky that the Syria CW episode mooted out before it developed any further (it almost certainly would have gone badly). As an incomplete episode it didn’t set down a constitutional precedent. It’s a lot easier to walk back from Rose Garden statement than from a closed constitutional case-file.
3. Obama has ample constitutional authority for not securing congressional authorization. There has been a lot of hair splitting on constitutional war powers lately, the unfortunate byproduct perhaps of the AUMF experience. But the basic dividing line (as nicely argued in the OLC Libya opinion) is between real wars (requiring advance congressional authorization) and everything else (not requiring it). Whatever the ISIL operation ends up being, it is unlikely to be of the former description, involving high risk of significant casualties, huge appropriations that Congress can’t refuse, and escalation. It won’t be “war” for constitutional purposes. I don’t need Article II for this. I’ll take 200+ years of history.
There will be inevitable carping about the refusal to seek the congressional okay here. But that has always been the case, even with respect to quick and painless military action. It will be a little louder than usual this time around. There are the contingencies of this particular operation, which is likely to be complicated and drawn out, with no immediate prospects of erasing the problem. There may also be a broader shift against using force in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. But Obama will weather the denunciations, just as have all of his predecessors, validating the constitutional order in the process.