Rand Paul's amendment to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Syria resolution calls attention to President Obama's 2007 statement to the Boston Globe that "the President does not have the 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." That's especially notable given that Obama stated clearly today that no such immediate threat exists.
At a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden, this morning, Obama talked about how he decided to ask Congress to authorize a military strike in Syria. "Some people had noted, and I think this is true, that had I been in the Senate in the midst of this period, I probably would have suggested to a Democratic or a Republican president that Congress should have the ability to weigh in an issue like this, that is not immediate, imminent, time-sensitive."
A few moments later he said that, "We may not be directly, imminently threatened by what's taking place in a Kosovo or a Syria or Rwanda in the short term, but our long-term national security will be impacted in a profound way, and our humanity is impacted in a profound way."
That's about as plain as it can get: There's no imminent threat in Syria. What about an "actual" threat? Given that Syria is not to strike the U.S. unless the U.S. strikes first, one could reasonably argue that military action is more likely to create an actual threat than to prevent it.
But let's look at what Obama said next. "I think it's important for us to get out of the habit, in those circumstances—again, I'm not talking about circumstances where our national security is directly impacted, we've been attacked, et cetera, where the president has to act quickly, but in circumstances of the type that I described, it's important for us to get out of the habit of just saying, well, we'll let the president kind of stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as—as he can."
The important phrase here is "circumstances where our national security is directly impacted." What Obama is saying is that Syria is not one of those circumstances. The notion that America's national security is not "directly impacted" rather strongly suggests that there's no actual threat from Syria, as opposed to a potential or possible threat.
What does that matter? Obama said the president cannot use force without congressional approval unless there's a threat. And now Congress is weighing in.
The problem is that Obama, along with other members of his administration, still insists that the president does not need congressional approval to take military action in Syria.
"I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," he said on Saturday. And despite his decision to go to Congress, he also stated his belief that he did not need their permission to use force, saying, "I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization." And at a congressional hearing yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry refused to say that a congressional no vote on the Syria resolution would be in any way binding.
So: Obama and his administration have indicated that they will not feel obligated to abide by congressional wishes should the authorization to use force in Syria not be approved. Indeed, the president has hinted that he may strike anyway, regardless of how Congress votes.
Speaking about the upcoming vote today, Obama implied that that congressional approval is only important in giving him the go-ahead to take action.
"I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture," he said at this morning's press conference. "I think it's very important that Congress say that we mean what we say. And I think we will be stronger as a country in our response if the president and Congress does it together. As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security. I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress, but I did not take this to Congress just because it's an empty exercise. I think it's important to have Congress' support on it."
So President Obama thinks it's important, which is to say that it's useful, to have congressional support to wage war in Syria. But he does not necessarily believe it's important to abide by the legislature's wishes should it oppose his stated desire to strike. A vote for war is valuable, in other words, because it suits Obama's purposes. And by the same token, a vote against war is not.