WASHINGTON — Wrote Jim Webb: President Obama has arguably established the authority of the president to intervene militarily virtually anywhere without the consent or the approval of Congress, at his own discretion and for as long as he wishes.
By GEORGE WILL
The Washington Post
As America tiptoes toward a fourth intervention in an opaque and uncontrollable conflict now Syria, after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya Webb's words require two minor modifications: Obama has demonstrated a power, not an authority; only the Constitution authorizes.
And as Webb understands, Obama has been able to do so only because Congress, over many years, has become too supine to wield its constitutional powers.
Webb, a Virginia Democrat who declined to seek a second Senate term, vents his dismay in the essay Congressional Abdication (in The National Interest), a trenchant indictment. The president, Webb says, is commander in chief but only in executing policies shepherded within the boundaries of legislative powers. Those powers have, however, atrophied from a disuse amounting to institutional malfeasance as Congress has forfeited its role in national-security policy making.
Webb, who was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam and Navy secretary for Ronald Reagan, remembers when Congress was fiercely protective of its powers. Webb vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq before he entered the Senate, which he departed disgusted by Congress' self-made irrelevance.
In December 2008, George W. Bush's administration signed with Iraq a Strategic Framework Agreement that outlined the U.S. role in defending Iraq from internal and external threats and combating terrorist groups.
But there was no meaningful consultation with Congress, no congressional debate on its merits and none sought by congressional leaders. In contrast to Congress' passivity regarding policy toward an unstable regime in an unstable region, Iraq's parliament voted on it twice.
In May 2012, Obama visited Afghanistan to sign a legally binding executive agreement concerning the structure of future U.S.-Afghan relations and an anticipated U.S. presence beyond 2014. Congress was not formally consulted about this, but Afghanistan's parliament voted on it.
Noting that in foreign as well as domestic policy Obama is acutely fond of executive orders designed to circumvent the legislative process, Webb recalls that in 2009 the administration said it would return from the United Nation's Copenhagen conference on climate change with a binding commitment for an emission-reduction program. So Webb wrote to remind the president that only specific legislation agreed upon in the Congress, or a treaty ratified by the Senate, could actually create such a commitment.
Webb notes that presidents now act as though they have become de facto prime ministers, unconstrained by the separation of powers. This transformation was dramatized in the Libya intervention:
We took military action against a regime that we continued to recognize diplomatically, on behalf of disparate groups of opposing forces whose only real point of agreement was that they wished to rid Libya of Moammar Gadhafi. The result? Rampant lawlessness perhaps related to the murder of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and the region-wide dispersion of thousands of weapons from Gadhafi's armories.
The question, Webb says, is whether in a world filled with cruelty, presidents should be allowed to pick and choose when and where to use military force by merely citing the undefinable rubric of humanitarian intervention.
Imperial presidents and invertebrate legislators have produced what Webb calls a breakdown of our constitutional process. Syria may be the next such bipartisan episode.
To reach George Will, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.