As a freshman US senator with his eye on the White House, Barack Obama said this: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Mr. Obama’s comment (which came in a 2007 interview with The Boston Globe) had to do with Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But it’s being remembered now in light of what appears to be an imminent US military assault on Syria in response to a recent chemical weapons attack there said by US intelligence sources to have killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 400 children.
Like recent presidents before him, Obama allows for circumstances in which the commander-in-chief must act unilaterally.
“In instances of self-defense,” Obama said in that 2007 interview, “the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.”
But, he also asserted, “History has shown us time and again … that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action."
“Preferable,” perhaps, but apparently not essential with today’s situation, according to recent comments from administration officials.
As half a dozen US Navy warships maneuver off the coast of Syria today, an estimated 200 to 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the ready and waiting for a launch order, Obama finds himself in what appears to be an increasingly isolated political position.
What would have been the main US ally in any coalition attack on Syria – Great Britain – has removed itself from the fight by a thumbs-down vote in Parliament.
More than 200 members of Congress – Democrats as well as Republicans – have signed letters asking to be more directly involved in any decision to attack Syria.
“I’m not a pacifist. I’m not one who thinks that there is never a time for war,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington said in a statement this week. “But we must enter into military action with full understanding of its gravity.”
“What is our national interest here? What is our end goal?” Representative McDermott asks. “Our past habit of reaction without thought to long-term and unintended consequences will yield the results we’ve had in the past: protracted conflicts that accomplish little, if anything. We have no way of telling what chain of events will domino with our involvement, ‘limited’ or otherwise.”
Polls this week show an overwhelming majority of Americans – 79 percent in an NBC News survey – want congressional approval before any such attack is launched.
Among other findings in this poll conducted Aug. 28-29: Fifty percent oppose the US military action in response to Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons, compared with 42 percent who support it. Only 21 percent say taking action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in the US interests. Just 35 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the situation.
According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken Aug. 27-28, 18 percent thought airstrikes against the Syrian government would stop the use of chemical weapons there, while 48 percent thought they would not. A 48 percent-to-18 percent plurality does not believe that a US attack would end the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Antiwar rallies were scheduled to take place Saturday in Washington, Boston, Houston, and other cities.
Also on Saturday afternoon, top national security officials are scheduled to hold unclassified conference calls with the Senate Democratic Caucus as well as the Senate Republican Conference, Reuters reports. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will participate, as well as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Meanwhile, five US Navy guided missile destroyers have been joined in the eastern Mediterranean by an amphibious ship with several hundred US Marines on board.