The President Has No Mandate to Bomb Iraq or Syria

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The President Has No Mandate to Bomb Iraq or Syria

President Barack Obama talks with Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outside the Oval Office following a meeting in the Situation Room of the White House, June 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

At this writing, President Obama has neither the legal nor the political mandate to conduct airstrikes in Iraq or Syria.

On Thursday night, 182 Members of the House voted yes on Representative Barbara Lee's amendment defunding the use of the 2002 Iraq Authorization for the Use Military Force. Among those 182 Members were 151 Democrats - 81% of the Democrats voting - including Minority Leader Pelosi and House Minority Whip Hoyer. By voting yes on Rep. Lee's amendment, these Members of the House affirmed that they oppose invocation of the Iraq AUMF to justify U.S. military action in Iraq today.

182 was not a majority of Members voting. But it is similar to the number of Members of the House - 192 - who urged President Obama to come to Congress for authorization before bombing Syria last August.

Some people claim that President Obama has the legal authority to bomb Iraq under the 2002 Iraq AUMF or under the 2001 AUMF passed after the September 11 attacks. Among other places, this claim is refuted here and here.

But regardless of whether we can agree that President Obama does not have the authority to bomb Iraq or Syria in a legal sense, as a political matter he should come to Congress for authorization anyway.

Indeed, when President Obama came to Congress for authorization to bomb Syria, he never conceded that he was legally bound to do so. He only conceded that it was appropriate to do so.

This is what President Obama said on August 31:

Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I'm prepared to give that order.
But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.
Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.
In the coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every member with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America's national security. And all of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote. [...]

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.

If that was true of bombing Syria then, it is true of bombing Iraq or Syria now. Many Members of the House are extremely wary of deeper U.S. military involvement in Iraq or Syria. On Thursday night the House passed by voice vote the Conyers-Yoho amendment prohibiting the Administration from transferring MANPADS to insurgents in Syria, and 167 Members voted for Rep. Fortenberry's amendment to prohibit all weapons transfers to insurgents in Syria. Before using military force in Iraq or Syria, the President should come to Congress with a specific plan and get explicit Congressional approval for it.

You can tell President Obama and Congress that there should be a full and public Congressional debate and vote before the President uses force in Iraq here.

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

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