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Does Obama need Congress to approve Syria strike? (+video)

Recent presidents have gotten permission from Congress or the UN Security Council before launching attacks. But on Syria, neither of those options looks feasible for President Obama.

By Correspondent / August 27, 2013

White House press secretary Jay Carney answers questions about Syria and chemical weapons during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington Tuesday.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Washington

As President Obama’s administration makes a case for military action in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, the discussion is prompting a key legal question: Does Mr. Obama have the authority to act without congressional approval or a UN Security Council resolution?

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In England, Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled Parliament and asked for a government motion and vote on the appropriate British response.

But opinions are mixed about Obama’s need for similar backing. And the question is not only a legal one but also political. Legally, does Obama need congressional support? And politically, should he desire it?

Even though President George W. Bush’s administration ultimately had to defend the supporting evidence it produced – or misrepresented, depending on your view – to lobby for military action in Iraq, Congress did pass a war resolution in 2002 authorizing force.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush also asked for and received congressional backing for the Gulf War waged on his watch. The UN Security Council passed a resolution as well, requiring Iraq to destroy its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons arsenal and pay war reparations to Kuwait.

But the UN Security Council does not appear to be a viable avenue for the Obama administration as it considers how to move on Syria. The Russians, fellow members, have pledged to veto anything considered by the UN. Their comparisons between Obama and his predecessor, often deemed the cowboy diplomat by his opponents, are rampant.

“Obama is restlessly heading towards war in Syria like Bush was heading towards war in Iraq,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Russian lower house’s international committee, said on Twitter. “Like in Iraq, this war would be illegitimate and Obama will become Bush’s clone.” 

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, added his voice to the mix: "The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law.”

Of course, the Constitution provides Congress with the power to declare war. But the Obama administration would likely argue it’s not proposing war, just, potentially, a missile strike that would represent a slap to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and caution that there’s more where that came from. An effort to dislodge him, but not a full commitment of troops, money, and time.

But some lawyers see danger signs in Obama’s push for strikes against Syria. Obama is advocating an “imperial presidential model,” says Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University.

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