With President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta not ruling out military action against Iran and Syria, Congress is once again trying to figure out its role in war making.
The House last June found itself in the paradoxical position of voting to defeat a resolution authorizing Obama to use force in Libya -- but also defeating a proposal to cut off funding for the operation. In effect, the House said it would keep paying for a war it did not authorize.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday March 7, 2012, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the crisis in Syria and the risks for U.S. involvement.
Although Obama has warned Congress and the Republican presidential contenders against talk of a precipitous war against Iran, he hasn’t ruled out ordering military action to stop the Tehran regime from developing nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., called this week for air strikes on Syria. And Panetta said Wednesday “potential military options, if necessary” are being considered by the Obama administration against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sometimes, as in the case of Libya, Congress votes too late on a resolution authorizing the president to use force. By the time the House voted on a resolution authorizing Obama to use force against Libya, he’d already ordered U.S. forces, as part of a NATO mission, to attack targets in that nation three months earlier.
Sometimes as in the case of invading Iraq in 2003, Congress votes to authorize an action the president made clear he was going to take anyway, no matter what Congress did.
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This week Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell came up with a new approach to the congressional role in war making. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, McConnell said that if U.S. intelligence agencies presented Congress with an assessment that Iran had begun to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, “or has taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon” he would consult with Obama and then introduce an authorization for the use of military force.
He said passage of an authorization would ensure that “we have a coherent, unified policy toward Iran and that we not take on another military action without bipartisan support.”
But even with the kind of vote McConnell envisions, no Congress can force a president to launch a military strike he does not choose to launch.
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Instead of being too late, as in Libya, would McConnell’s idea be a case of Congress moving too soon?
“I think the Israelis have avoided drawing lines so he probably should not draw red lines at this time either,” said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D- Mich. Thursday. “I think it’s better to kind of keep them guessing. That’s what the Israelis are doing. The prime minster of Israel specifically said he’s not specifying what they may do under what conditions, so I think that McConnell would be wise not to specify at this time either” – other than reiterating that “all options are on the table.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R- Maine, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said, “I think he (McConnell) was trying to send a signal to the Iranians that there is a red line here and if the Iranians cross it, there would be support in Congress for strong action. I think he was trying to send a signal to the administration that it needs to be tougher in its approach with the Iranians.”
But, she added, “I think it’s a long way from actually authorizing the use of force.”
Collins thinks presidents should get authorization from Congress in order to launch military actions.
In Libya, she said, Obama “should have received congressional authorization and I felt the president violated the War Powers Act in not doing so.” Collins said it isn’t simply a matter of congressional authorization ensuring that a war will have public backing: “It’s a matter of following the law and respecting the Constitution.”
As for Syria, McCain said Thursday a congressional authorization to use force “would be useful, but I think right now you’d have to have the president ask for it” and there would need to be more public support. “But, believe me; momentum is building in our direction: look at the lead editorial in the Washington Post this morning.” That editorial called for Obama to build an international consensus to use force against Assad’s regime.
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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., a believer in robust presidential war-making powers, said, “I think the president could deploy military force in this situation without an authorization from Congress.”
Graham said he wants Obama to lead an international coalition which would provide humanitarian aid to Syrians under attack from the Assad regime and which might impose a no-fly zone “to give breathing space to the people about to be slaughtered and create a sanctuary where they re-group, organize and be trained.” He emphasized that he did not want the United States to act unilaterally.
But even if there were a congressional resolution to use force in Syria, unintended consequences might follow.
Louis Fisher, a war powers scholar at the Constitution Project, a Washington think tank said that a congressional resolution is not in itself an insurance policy against misguided presidential action.
“My first thought is the disaster of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution” by which authorized use of force against North Vietnam in 1964, he said. “Yes, it featured Congress ‘authorizing’ a war but the resolution was carelessly drafted and permitted (President Lyndon) Johnson to escalate the war the next year. The Iraq Resolution of 2002 is another example of a misconceived effort to authorize war. Congress is supposed to make the decision. Instead the resolution left the question of military action to (President) Bush.”
As for McConnell’s idea, Fisher said “This legislation seems to give the intelligence community a trigger to authorize military action against Iran.” Based on how the intelligence agencies performed in the run-up to the Iraq war, he said, that might be a grave error.
Even though Graham doesn’t think Obama needs a vote by Congress to act against Syria, he did say that a congressional authorization “always bolsters your case, it’s always good to have the country behind military action.”
But in fast-moving situations the president cannot and should not wait: “When the president hits these guys in Somalia, go get ‘em. We’ve given the authorization to use force against al Qaida (in the 2001 congressional vote).”
Yet, 11 years after the congressional vote to give Bush the power to fight al Qaida and allied groups, Graham said there are murky post-9/11 cases in which it is not clear how far congressional authorization reaches: “What about these spin-off groups, al-Shabaab (in Somalia) and these other groups that are just beginning to spin off? AQIM (an Algerian-based jihadist group), what about them? So we need to think this thing through.”
He said, “These are really good questions; I don’t know the answers to them all.”