Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Obama wants his very own AUMF


If life, death and destruction weren't at stake -- and they are -- President Obama's decision to go to Congress for his very own "Authorization to Use Military Force" (AUMF) authorizing an attack on Syria would be an occasion to break out the popcorn and enjoy the political spectacle. This should be a doozy of a political fight and citizen agitation can play a role in it.

My immediate reaction to the news was that we are seeing a break from the practice of US Presidents ever since we became top world empire after World War II. Mostly they shoot first and get Congressional endorsement later, if at all. Choosing to go to Congress before initiating hostilities is a modern rarity, not entirely unprecedented, but still a frequently neglected nod toward democratic legality. Smart observers from several political camps agree:

Even if the attacks do take place, a new caveat will have been added to any future warning the president may choose to make: We will act -- if the most feckless Congress in memory chooses to go along with him. …Whatever happens with regard to Syria, the larger consequence of the president's action will resonate for years. The president has made it highly unlikely that at any time during the remainder of his term he will be able to initiate military action without seeking congressional approval.

David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy

***
It may well be the most important presidential act on the Constitution and war-making powers since Harry Truman decided to sidestep Congress and not seek their backing to launch the Korean war.

Walter Shapiro, journalist, observer of many presidents

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The shouted question at the end of Obama’s short statement, with Biden at his shoulder, about whether he will strike Syria even if Congress does not approve is the right question, and the answer is almost surely no. Why go through the motions of involving Congress unless the president will abide by its vote? But that question raises more than just awkward possibilities or embarrassing outcomes. We now have the very real prospect of a new balance of power between this President and Congress, and maybe all future presidents, that I’m not sure anyone had contemplated playing out this way even two weeks ago, before the nerve agent attack in Damascus’ suburbs. And that is probably still true even if Congress backs the President’s position.

David Kurtz, TPM

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This may be the first sensible step that Obama has taken in the Syrian crisis, and may prove to be one of the better ones of his Presidency—even if he loses the vote, as could happen. … If he loses it’s not unambiguously clear, given how ill-thought out the military strategy appears to be at this point, that Syria, or even his Presidency, will be worse off. (… [we can] wonder for a minute if getting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution through was such a victory for [President Lyndon] Johnson.)

Amy Davidson, New Yorker

Meanwhile the political ramifications of going for a Congressional vote are fascinating. As I keep remembering, President Obama probably owes his narrow victory over Hilary Clinton in the 2008 primary to some light-weight remarks questioning the Iraq invasion before he was elected to the Senate. His opponents had voted to endorse that disaster; he had not. Democrats with ambitions for higher office will take note. A substantial fraction of the Democratic party base -- 50 percent perhaps? -- are instinctively opposed to wars of choice in far flung outposts of empire.

After Iraq and the festering sore in Afghanistan, the country is at large is deeply war weary and not easily sold on the need to slay foreign monsters in places they can't locate. Rand Paul and friends are reviving the classic Republican sort of isolationism, a gut revulsion to getting involved with "those foreigners" who are so often black or brown.

It doesn't help the President that his case for attacking Syria is both hypocritical and weak. Here's a summary from Mike Lofgren, a centrist former Congressional staffer who is disgusted with both political parties:

Attacking Syria is simply not in the US national interest; and absent an objective assessment from a neutral inspection team, and absent a UN resolution, the US has no legitimate authority under any law or treaty to act unilaterally. Period. The US Government claims it is upholding international norms; but in so acting it is violating those very same norms. The US has in the recent past violated international norms on aggressive war, torture, rendition of POWs, assassination, use of chemical weapons (phosphorous, napalm, etc.), land mines, ad infinitum. The US acting in this manner is like a serial wife beater judging a case of spousal abuse.

I see this morning that the President is signaling some willingness to accept limits on a Congressional AUMF. This is important. People of the United States need to understand that the "legal authority" under which our Presidents have been shooting people in countries with which we are not at war like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen as well as spying on the whole internet is the emotional Congressional vote after 9/11 for Bush's AUMF. I imagine many Congresscritters thought they were voting to kill Osama Bin Laden, not for permanent war across the globe against poorly defined "terrorists". If a broad measure comes out of Congress for Obama's AUMF, watch out for whether it can be twisted to endorse war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and against Iran. Emptywheel has more.

Naturally the President will pull out all the stops to round up votes and I wouldn't bet against him. The guy has shown few political skills beyond winning elections (okay, I'll credit him with Obamacare, something that may work) but he enjoys very competent Congressional leadership in his own party. This will be one of those times when this San Franciscan is without representation in Congress; Nancy Pelosi can be counted on to round up votes for the President, regardless of her constituents' antiwar sentiments or even any skepticism of her own.

But many Congresspeople will be far more open to constituent views than mine. It's time to get on the phone -- if you don't already know how to call your member, click here.

5 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

It was interesting listening to right wing talk radio pundits saying about what you did here. They would love war action if their guy led it but Obama-- not so much. Me, I don't have an opinion on it. What Obama said was he wants to make using nerve gas too expensive for others to use it or the Syrian government to use it again. It's about the weapon not who wins as Obama has laid out. It's not what McCain and Graham want as they want the rebels to win-- except who are the rebels? That's the problem all across the Middle East-- who are these people and most of us don't know for sure-- except whoever 'wins' the people are most likely to lose.

janinsanfran said...

From Facebook: John Kirkley writes "I'm a bit cynical about the President's motives in going to Congress. I'd like to think it is a nod towards restraining the imperial presidency, but I think it has more to do with forcing Republican votes on the issue and fomenting primary challenges between the isolationist and old-guard hawk wings of the GOP."

Rain Trueax said...

well he is a politician in the essence. They all are by the time they get to that level :(

amspirnational said...

He could be lying, but nothing in Obama's record suggests he is. I'm talking about the neocon General Jack Keane who told the BBC that Obama has confided he is going to take out Assad and his regime.

Obama believed he had the Congress in the tank before his "courageous" move. Probably right, even AIPAC is now coming out for the attack after lowkeying it for weeks. And it owns Congress.

amspirnational said...

He could be lying, but nothing in Obama's record suggests he is. I'm talking about the neocon General Jack Keane who told the BBC that Obama has confided he is going to take out Assad and his regime.

Obama believed he had the Congress in the tank before his "courageous" move. Probably right, even AIPAC is now coming out for the attack after lowkeying it for weeks. And it owns Congress.

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