“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.”
— Jim Webb
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 of the irrelevance of an institution to which the Constitution gives “certain powers over the structure and use of the military.” 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 policymaking.
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, in its final hours, George W. Bush's administration signed with Iraq a Strategic Framework Agreement that was, Webb says, “not quite a treaty” requiring two-thirds Senate approval, but neither was it merely implementing current policy and law. It outlined the U.S. role in defending Iraq from internal and external threats, in promoting reconciliation and combating terrorist groups.
For more than a year the SFA was negotiated and finalized, 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 the SFA — twice.
In May 2012, Obama visited Afghanistan to sign “a legally binding executive agreement” concerning the structure of future U.S.-Afghan relations, U.S. commitments to Afghan security and an anticipated U.S. presence beyond 2014. The agreement calls Afghanistan a “Major Non-NATO Ally.” 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 Nations' 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.
Imperial presidents and invertebrate legislators of both parties have produced what Webb correctly calls “a breakdown of our constitutional process.” Syria may be the next such bipartisan episode.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Comeau’s hat trick leads Penguins; Crosby reaches career points
- Steelers’ backups Archer, Harris ready to run
- Pitt plays best game of the season; routs Kansas State
- Steelers notebook: Roethlisberger says Saints game is ‘must win’
- Starkey: Rutherford will add when timing’s right
- Fatal crash closes Flight 93 chapel in Somerset County
- Pregnant woman struck by van in North Side dies; doctors save baby
- Pirates notebook: Autographs to come at a cost at PirateFest
- Penguins notebook: Bennett to miss about 2 weeks
- PIT wants non-passengers allowed past security to shop
- Man charged with impersonating doctor for free Nemacolin stay