Would Obama Attack Without Congressional Approval?

As Congress continues to “debate” whether to approve a resolution authorizing President Obama to launch a bombing campaign in Syria, perhaps the most fascinating question in all of this is whether Obama would go ahead and do it even if Congress votes no (and it appears that the House may well do exactly that). Paul Waldman thinks the answer is yes:

The Washington Post is keeping a whip count, which at this point in the House has 86 members against, another 92 leaning no, only 19 in favor, and 103 officially undecided (that leaves 135 for which they haven’t ascertained an opinion). In other words, the skeptics are much more numerous at this point, but there’s plenty of room to assemble a majority in favor of a strike. But what if the House does vote no?

It’s hard to imagine the Obama administration will pull back. After all, they’ve said quite clearly that they believe they don’t need Congress’ approval, and they will have spent weeks making the case that striking Syria is utterly vital to U.S. national-security interests. It would seem likely they’d go ahead and launch some missiles anyway.

And indeed, that’s what the obviously intentional leaks from the administration strongly suggested immediately after the president said he would seek congressional authorization for a strike. Within an hour, there were reports that “White House sources” said that the president is convinced that he doesn’t need such authorization (his own statements as a candidate notwithstanding) and would go ahead with a bombing campaign with or without the assent of Congress. But the White House now appears to be walking that back a bit, with other anonymous sources saying they wouldn’t do that. And Peter Baker of the New York Times is right that doing so would be very dangerous for the president politically:

In private, Mr. Obama and his team see the votes as a guidepost for the rest of his presidency well beyond the immediate question of launching missiles at Syrian military targets. If Congress does not support a relatively modest action in response to a chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people in Syria, Obama advisers said, the president will not be able to count on support for virtually any use of force.

Although Mr. Obama has asserted that he has the authority to order the strike on Syria even if Congress says no, White House aides consider that almost unthinkable. As a practical matter, it would leave him more isolated than ever and seemingly in defiance of the public’s will at home. As a political matter, it would almost surely set off an effort in the House to impeach him, which even if it went nowhere could be distracting and draining.

Absolutely true. If President Obama launched an attack in the face of a no vote from Congress, he would be isolating himself politically. It’s one thing to tell Congress to go to hell on an issue where you have public opinion on your side, as he did when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthy and not shutting down the government. It’s quite another to go it alone on something that the American public is strongly against, and the polls show overwhelming disapproval of military intervention in Syria.

White House advisers have to know that going lone wolf on something this unpopular could further reduce his chances of getting the rest of his agenda pass, already significantly weakened by Republican control of the House. But if the House says no and puts themselves where the people clearly are, Obama could kill off the rest of his political leverage by bucking that tide.

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  • There is more than enough precedent for the President to take unilateral action as Commander in Chief and let Congress ratify his actions after the fact. Bush II did this, and Obama LOVES to keep the legacy of Bush II alive. Clinton did this, too. As did Bush I, and Reagan.

    So of course Obama would attack without Congressional approval.

  • The first time in a decade we’ve seen conservatives against killing Arabs. Perhaps it’s time for Obama to endorse Creationism, state sponsored Christian prayer in public schools, lower taxes on the wealthy and deportation of all Mexicans living in the US.

  • …But if the House says no and puts themselves where the people clearly are”

    [“In other news, temperature in Hell today hit record lows…”]

  • This whole Syria business has been consistently stupid (especially for Obama, who is, most of the time, pretty sharp)–so the additional stupidity of “going it alone” would, sadly, be unsurprising at this point.

    Still, I hope I he regains those IQ points he mislaid somewhere and accepts the recent escape route offered by the Russians and by Assad.

  • uzza

    Your quaint little concerns with national sovereignty and domestic policy are fine, but how are we going to get our pipeline built if we can’t sic the US military on guys that hold up progress?

  • frankb

    What will rally the public after the fact is seeing the videos of things going boom.

  • ShowMetheData

    DX said “Obama to endorse … state sponsored Christian prayer in public schools”

    Obama is working on that


  • eric

    @1 – the difference is, they didn’t ask Congress’ approval before acting unilaterally. You’re right, lots of Presidents have gotten away with”seek forgiveness, not permission” uses of force. IMO Obama probably could have gotten away with it too…if he had done that. But he didn’t. He asked permission (technically, said he will ask permission). So now he’s in relatively uncharted waters.

    While I don’t think it will go anywhere, I’d be okay with the partial victory of the Russian proposal. If Syria actually agreed to allow unfettered inspection of their military facilites (they won’t) by a solid international team (they’ll try and rig it), and also agreed to hand over control of any CW or CW-producing facilities that are found (they won’t), that would get the CW problem mostly off the table. And is IMO much much better than air stikes. But at the same time, I undersdand the “don’t make me laugh” response to that proposal, since it’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of actually working.

  • colnago80

    You know, maybe this is a feint. Maybe while everybody’s attention is focused on Syria, Obama and Bibi are surreptitiously planning to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    Of course Obama would attack without congressional approval. He attacked Libya without congressional approval.

    However I don’t know what game Obama is playing here. On the one hand, the sudden decision to seek congressional approval when he didn’t seek it over Libya and denies that he even needs it, strongly suggests that he’s trying to find some way to avoid an attack that he feels pressured into by his own stupid ‘red line’ rhetoric and the machinations of the US media.

    On the other hand, the appalling Colin Powell/Condoleeza Rice-like rhetoric coming from John Kerry suggests Obama is as eager to attack Syria as Bush was to attack Iraq. The same old arguments have been trotted out. But maybe it’s all a bluff. What I don’t doubt is that he will attack Syria if that’s what he’s determined to do. Public opinion just isn’t that important any more.

  • raven

    However I don’t know what game Obama is playing here.

    Maybe he doesn’t either.

    Maybe no one has much of an idea what they are doing.

    1. We don’t have a compelling natioanal interest in Syria. Neither side is our ally.

    Sure there have been atrocities. There were atrocities in Somalia, Rwanda, and Lebanon and we didn’t do much. We tried in Somalia under Clinton and in Lebanon under Reagan and both were failures and we sensibly cut and ran.

    2. The vast majority of the world and a lot of the American people are against intervention in Syria. If you want to do something and everyone else thinks it is dumb, it is time to reevaluate your position. Maybe the majority is right.

  • Nick Gotts

    If he doesn’t get Congressional approval and actually wants to attack Syria, he’d have to find some new reason to do so, and argue that it was somehow in response to a direct threat to the USA or a key ally (Israel or Turkey, most likely). Since both Israel and Turkey appear to want him to attack, it probably wouldn’t be that hard. But I’m not convinced he does want to attack – if he did, why ask, unless he badly miscalculated the chances the answer would be “No”?

  • jazzmac251

    What the fuck is wrong with everyone? This is driving me insane.

    A dictator uses chemical weapons against civilians and the response from the international community is…what…nothing? “Strong condemnation”? Yes, atrocities have happened throughout the world while everyone stood by and watched. Last time I checked, people usually say that with a heavy sigh and exasperated head-shaking. Are you saying that’s a justification for inaction during this atrocity?

    Yes, Obama absolutely should strike Syria. No, he doesn’t need Congressional approval. Seeking the approval of Congress was just a way for the White House to try to rally national support around the decision. Unfortunately, the American people are largely 1) ignorant quasi-intellectuals that conflate Iraq and Syria based on trivial similarities without acknowledging that the situations couldn’t be more dissimilar, 2) hyper-partisan assholes that oppose anything Obama does due to their own affliction with Obama Derangement Syndrome, 3) sociopathic Ayn-Rand types that see no clear way to skew the situation in Syria toward the U.S. thus don’t see the point in getting involved, or 4) childish pacifists whose ideals wouldn’t know the definition of “pragmatism” if they were in a room full of dictionaries.

    Assuming this weapons deal falls through, Obama should absolutely punish the regime with surgical air strikes. A decision is hardly “unilateral” when most of the world’s governments are clamoring to support it. It’s not Obama’s fault that the American people – and by extension those that represent them in Congress – have their heads shoved so far up their own asses they can’t see the light of day anymore.

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    @13 jazzmac251 Fuck off you warmongering piece of shit. You are a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the typical Obama supporter.

  • Nick Gotts


    Perhaps what’s “wrong with everyone” is that they are not so stupid, unlike you, as to believe the bullshit about “surgical air strikes”: air strikes kill people, including innocent ones. They may also not be so stupid, unlike you, as to believe that a round of “surgical air strikes” would be the end of the matter.

  • Especially when we’re talking about chemical weapons. Your “surgical air strike” isn’t going to be so surgical if you blow up a chemical weapons depot and its contents go floating over the town next door and kill a bunch of civilians.

  • raven

    What the fuck is wrong with everyone? This is driving me insane.

    A dictator uses chemical weapons against civilians and the response from the international community is…what…nothing?

    1. OK, we bomb them halfway back to the stone age? So what?

    Are those dead people who were nerve gassed going to then come magically back to life?

    Your are mistaking doing something with doing something to solve a problem. They aren’t the same thing. It’s almost an automatic reflex, when in doubt, bomb something. It works sometimes, i.e. Libya and Serbia, fails other times i.e. Vietnam, Somalia, and Lebanon.

    2. Well, you got one point right. There are 220 nations in the world. There are 7 billion people. We in the USA are 1 country of 317 million people. Why us? Why not the International community or UN instead. We aren’t the world’s policeman any more.

  • raven

    A decision is hardly “unilateral” when most of the world’s governments are clamoring to support it.

    This is actually a false statement. Killing a few thousand or tens of thousands of people on the basis of false information isn’t too smart or moral. We did that in Iraq and two of the dead were friends of mine. I could ask what in the hell is wrong with YOU but I don’t much care.

    AFAICT, the vast majority of the world’s nations are opposed. Even the UK dropped it which leaves the French and US and maybe a few others.

  • David C Brayton

    This seems to be a likely scenario: four months from now, Obama receives excellent, actionable intelligence that the Assad regime is preparing to launch a large chemical weapons attack.

    Should Obama strike to prevent the attack? If so, does he have the power to do so under the Constitution?

    Morally, I would think yes. If I have the ability to prevent the deaths of a substantial number of civilians with risking my own life, I should, right?

    Constitutionally, I don’t think he has the power to act unilaterally (i.e. without Congress’ approval) unless the interests of the US are in peril.