Senator Obama: President Needs Congressional Authorization to Use Force

by Andrew C. McCarthy

In late 2007, Powerline’s John Hinderaker reminds us, Senator Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, provided answers to questions posed by Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe and New York Times, in order to provide voters with his views on presidential power – you know, so we would know what to expect if we elected him. Here’s an exchange in which the self-proclaimed constitutional law scholar explained his position on the commander-in-chief’s use of force:

Q. In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

A. The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

As John points out, Senator Rand Paul proposed an amendment to the use-of-force authorization voted out of the foreign relations committee yesterday. The amendment precisely tracked the position articulated by Obama in 2008. It was defeated 14-4, thanks mostly to Democrats who are doing President Obama’s bidding.

Interestingly, Obama claimed yesterday that the use of force is necessary to enforce a purported international norm against chemical weapons. Of course, the fact that most countries sign a treaty hardly means there is an international norm – the world has declined to act against Syria, and conduct is a more reliable indication of a norm than parchment. It is also an international norm that sovereigns may not be bound by international law without their consent, and Syria has neither signed nor ratified the chemical weapons convention.

All blather about supposed norms aside, though, how remarkable that candidate Obama rejected the presidential use of force unauthorized by Congress, even to defend the dictates of the vaunted “international community,” absent an actual or imminent attack on the United States; now, President Obama claims the power to instigate unauthorized attacks unilaterally, in the absence of any threat to the United States, in order to enforce alleged international norms that the vaunted “international community” shows no interest in enforcing.

Apropos of Secretary of State Kerry’s ludicrous claim that bombing a country is not an act of war if it is only a little bombing and there are no “boots on the ground,” it bears emphasis that candidate Obama did not say the president may not instigate a “war” unilaterally. He said presidents do not have the power “to unilaterally authorize a military attack.” Even if he can’t bring himself to use the W-word, surely even Kerry would concede that the use of military force is a military attack.