The Danger of Unilateral Presidential Action in Iraq

ISIS is a brutal group, but Congress must insist on playing a central role in the decision-making process.


Barack Obama
White House

Last night, President Obama announced that he has authorized airstrikes to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq created by terrifying and brutal ISIS forces.  U.S. strikes have apparently begun.

It is clear that President Obama believes he has the authority to act unilaterally, and members of Congress seem to either be acquiescing or else urging him to act even more aggressively. Senators McCain and Graham issued a statement last night calling on the president "to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS."  The senators warned that "the longer we wait to act, the worse this threat [from ISIS] will become, as recent events clearly show."

It is a mistake for Congress to cede authority to the president in this area.  There is simply no reason to do so, and Congress's deference adds to the misconception that the president has legal authority to act alone.  Unless there is an immediate threat to the United States that demands emergency action and allows no time for the president to consult with Congress, the Constitution does not permit the president to unilaterally order the use of military force. This is a position supported both by constitutional history and common sense. The framers of the Constitution rejected the then-prevailing British model, which assigned the king war power, and gave Congress the power to initiate war (outside of the emergency scenario where the president had authority to repel sudden attacks).  In a system of checks and balances designed to prevent the concentration of power in any one branch, it is essential for the president to consult and cooperate with Congress on decisions about the use of military force whenever possible.  History shows us that presidents make terrible mistakes when they act alone, and that they sometimes mislead Congress into rubberstamping their actions.  Iraq itself should be a cautionary tale: President Bush mislead Congress into authorizing the war that began in 2003, while Senators McCain, Graham, and others incorrectly predicted that U.S. forces would be welcomed as liberators in an Iraq that would not fall prey to sectarian divisions.

Congress needs to assert itself by taking an active role in deciding what to do (or not do) about ISIS, rather than simply leaving it up to the president.  Congress has shown that it is capable of playing this role.  In the late summer of 2013, members of Congress correctly required the president to seek its approval before ordering military action in Syria.  This was the right move both as a matter of constitutional law and policy: as the president waited for Congress to consider authorizing legislation, diplomatic developments obviated the claimed need for military action.

Why can the president act unilaterally in Iraq when he could not in Syria—what's different?  Well, the United Nations Security Council has issued a statement condemning ISIS's brutality and calling on member states to help civilians suffering as a result of ISIS's actions.  The Security Council did not endorse intervention in Syria.  But even if the UN does ultimately call on member states to take military action (its statement does not expressly do this), that would not give President Obama authority to act.  The Constitution, not the UN Charter, is the source of authority for military action, and the Constitution requires congressional approval outside of the emergency context.  

President Obama has suggested that he can order military action because the Iraqi government has asked for help.  Again, that is relevant only in the context of international law—of course the Iraqi government cannot take the place of Congress under the Constitution.  

In theory, President Obama might point to legislation Congress passed in 2002 authorizing the 2003 war in Iraq.  But that legislation was "purchased with false currency" and cannot be relied on as the basis for new military action.

In his address last night, President Obama promised that "as Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."  But he cannot know where military action will lead and, under the Constitution, this decision is not his to make alone.  ISIS is a terrible, brutal group, but it is not clear that U.S. action can stop them. Congress must insist on playing a central role in the decision-making process, instead of leaving it all up to the president.

NEXT: Dem in Congress: We Should Vote on Airstrikes ... When We Come Back in September

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  1. It is a mistake for Congress to cede authority to the president in this area.

    He gets all the blame if when it goes to shite. They get credit for either urging him to do more or complaining that he’s doing anything.

    1. When has Obama ever gotten the blame for anything? The man could order airstrikes, and then campaign against them in the same breath, and get away with it.

      The man’s dumbass health care law raises premiums, and he still goes in front of a tv campaigning against increases in premiums, and he gets away with it.

      1. To put it another way, Obama will get us further involved in the Iraq war, and still campaign against the Iraq war, and for some reason the American people will buy it.

      2. Well, Republicans blame him for everything. Democrats for nothing. So the answer to your question depends on which team people are on.

      3. I blame Bush

        1. I blame the Clinton’s !

      4. “The man’s dumbass health care law raises premiums, and he still goes in front of a tv campaigning against increases in premiums, and he gets away with it.”

        I am confident that on Nov. 5th you will see that he did not get away with that.

        1. Mandatory = more expensive. When PA made car insurance mandatory, one of the main selling points was that if everyone had insurance, it would be cheaper. After the law passed my insurance immediately doubled. The rate increase resulted in fewer people having insurance. The fifty million dollars spent lobbying was well worth it to the insurance companies.

    2. “He gets all the blameifwhen it goes to shite. They get credit for either urging him to do more or complaining that he’s doing anything.”

      That’s exactly right. They don’t want to do anything to jeapordize their ability to continue to pilfer the income of future generations for the benefit of themselves either financially or politically or of their friends. Where is this motivation? It’s certainly not the best interest of the United States that they give a shit about.

      1. And it matters less that Obama gets blamed and more that they do not. This why we have an Imperial presidency. I blame congress more than I do the administrative in fact, because congress could put an end to it whenever they want.

  2. “President Obama promised that “as Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.””

    It would appear that he prefers jumping in feet-first to this ‘dragging’ business.

    because i’m sure ‘limited airstrikes’ will achieve decisive ends. When have they not?

    1. Oh Weeeeeiiiggggeeeeeellllll…..

    2. Well, limited airstrikes can be decisive, if done at the right time. That time would have been when convoys of ISIS fighters were moving into Iraq on roads, without any air cover or air defense abilities. Now it’s much more problematic, but not impossible.

  3. The Politician Who Famously Resigned In Klingon Is Running For Senate
    David Waddell, the former North Carolina councilman who famously tendered his resignation in Klingon earlier this year, has gathered the required 500 signatures needed to be recognized as an official write-in candidate for U.S. Senate this November….

    1. Yeah, I’m sure a clown who resigns in Klingon will get wide support from the electorate!

      1. Have you been in cryosleep or something for the past 50 years?

      2. It was probably more understandable than the claptrap those dildos on the Hill usually excrete.

  4. The did 2002 authorization have a cutoff point? Either a specific date or some sort of “until such time as…” clause? Because one would think that when U.S. combat troops left Iraq, and everyone said Obama ended the war in Iraq, that the 2002 authorization would have also ended.

    1. Good question. I somehow think it was open-ended, but I’m not sure. Bonus irony: Obama using a law he voted against.

    2. AUMF Iraq still in effect.
      As an ironic side note, there was recent talk about rescinding it, but no action taken.
      But don’t let facts get in the way of a good isolationist rant, especially one that uses the word of a Russian famine denier – Lou Fischer – as evidence that “presidents make terrible mistakes when they act alone.
      P.S. Not an Oblamo supporter but have even less trust in Congress in such matters.

  5. I know that there’s a name for a system of government where the military can be committed on the say-so of a single top man who does not need the approval of anyone to do it but it’s escaping me at the moment..

    1. Dick tater ship…or something?

  6. It’s not unilateral.

    Someone is following orders.

  7. Wait, Shikha just told me that unilateral Presidential action was just great. Which is it? I’m getting confused.

    1. It’s…it’s…almost as if…two DIFFERENT PEOPLE are offering two different opinions! Holy shit.

      1. Ah, so which is right? Or do we just worry about the ends, not the limits of power?

    2. I took her argument to be not that it is great, but that it is not an illegal usurpation of powers reserved for Congress because Congress delegated those powers to the Executive by law.

      Whether that delegation is strictly Constitutional or desirable are separate questions from the fact of the delegation.

  8. Now here there is an actual case of hypocrisy on Obama’s part, in 2007 he said “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.”

    1. But he already “covered” that during the 2011 Libyan “kinetic military action”. See the difference?

    2. When was the last time that we had a President that based his decisions on the powers the Constitution granted him?

      1. “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”
        -James Madison

        James Madison?

        1. We should bring him back. He wrote the Constitution, so at least he’ll understand it.

          1. Racist!

      2. Coolidge?

        1. That was my guess. Reagan vetoed some bills he thought were beyond to scope of the Federal Government. At least one of them was immediately signed by HW in ’89.

    3. It’s only hypocracy if you meant it. Otherwise it’s just lying.

    4. Bo,

      Much like the mistake many people make with you – that you are a) debating in good faith, and b) are intelligent enough to actually understand the flaws in your own arguments – you here make the mistake of assuming that ‘statements made by Obama’ are in any way a reflection of his actual views or reflective of policies he intends to follow.

      Because I don’t recall Libya being ‘a situation that involved stopping an imminent threat to the nation’.

      Like you, people know that Obama is a liar, seeking only to create momentary appeal with his words, and like you, do not take anything he says seriously, but rather observe and scrutinize his behavior to determine his actual intent and motives.

      1. “…do not take anything he says seriously, but rather observe and scrutinize his behavior to determine his actual intent and motives.”

        I can’t think of any politician of significance that this does not apply to. I’m not saying it’s ok to pander, I’m just saying every politician that makes it out of the podunk league will say things that are not born out when they actually need to vote or make a policy decision.

        Moral of the story is, look at the track record. Obama showed every sign of being a pretty generic Democrat in 2007.

  9. The Constitution is just a piece of paper. It is meaningless unless it is enforced.

    Clearly, the federal government isn’t going to enforce it on itself, for the Constitution tells the government what it is allowed to do. It also states that the few powers granted the federal government by the states are the only powers it has.

    1. But it’s like 100 years old, and written by dead white male slaveowners. It has no relevance today.

    2. It’s a long piece of paper. The latest edition is soft, puffy, and comes as a roll.

  10. “Once you break it, you are going to own it, and we’re going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us.”

    —-Colin Powell Summer, 2002

    There should be more serious study of this phenomenon. The forces that compel nations to guarantee the basic standards of civilization in the places they’ve invaded seem to follow very strict rules. This is what “Shooting an Elephant” was about. This happened to Napoleon.

    The bad outcomes are predictable, and the ways to avoid them are not mysterious–they’re just not well-known.

    We violated, at least, three of these tenets:

    And I would say we violated six of these tenets:…..e_Doctrine

    The forces that compel us to keep going back to the places we’ve invaded are so powerful that no president can be expected to resist them. That’s like expecting a president to resist economics or physics.

    The best we can hope for is a president who will avoid wars that aren’t in America’s interests in the first place, and there’s only one candidate I think I can trust to do that.

    And it isn’t Hillary Clinton.

  11. Airstrikes are always believed to be the safe and easy way to “get involved without boots on the ground” but this is hardly a guarantee. Things can go wrong very quickly at 30K feet, especially with an aged and overworked Air Force.

    There is always the danger that ISIS gets its hands on some serious AA weapons and takes down a US Pilot. In Libya we had a pilot go down and he wasn’t even shot at, the plane malfunctioned.

    If ISIS gets a US soldier somehow this will get very bad very quickly.

    1. “Tman|8.8.14 @ 3:01PM|#

      Airstrikes are always believed to be the safe and easy way to “get involved without boots on the ground” but this is hardly a guarantee”

      Far from it.

      You get all the real-world effect of “declaring war” with none of the actual ‘ability to decisively determine territorial control’-stuff.

      the Obama admin claims it has ‘narrow objectives’ – but this is completely misleading.

      By ‘narrow objectives’, do they mean that the US is disinterested in whether ISIS controls vast swaths of Iraq? (its just the ‘humanitarian’ angle we are intervening for? Really?); do they care if the Kurds attempt to secede? Do they care if Iran effectively takes proxy control of Baghdad?

      The pretense that we have ‘narrow interests’ in Iraq is the great lie. We have might have a ‘narrow mission statement’ for this particular operation = but this is in the context of a larger context of Iraq going to shit under Obama’s watch, and he wants to be able to hold the place together at least long enough to pass it on to someone else so he can avoid the blame of ‘disengaging too soon’ and allowing the region to descend into chaos that might have been otherwise been averted.

    2. IS already has serious AA weapons – US supplied stinger missiles. It may also have SS-11’s like used to down MH17, which is why the US just declared Iraq a no-fly zone for US airlines.

  12. Senators McCain and Graham issued a statement last night calling on the president “to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS.” The senators warned that “the longer we wait to act, the worse this threat [from ISIS] will become, as recent events clearly show.”

    The US is threatened by ISIS? [Citation required gentlemen]

    1. Al Qaeda was mostly about the dictators in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lybia, Tunisia, Iraq, etc….all of these places were under the thumbs of vicious dictatorships, and Al Qaeda was out to destroy them (and put OBL in charge).

      The U.S. got in the way because some of those countries were on our payroll going back to during the Cold War.

      I think these ISIS guys may see the United States as their primary enemy, and I think they present a legitimate security threat to the United States.

      Even if they attacked us, there would still be legitimate questions about how best to respond.

      I’m not interested in getting more deeply involved in Iraq, and I oppose sending any more troops into Iraq at this point, but I wouldn’t downplay the threat that ISIS poses to the U.S. security.

  13. What’s the point of declarations of war or AUMFs again? I forget.

    1. Drama

      1. Seriously, I’d like Congress to fucking grow a pair and stop this practice of allowing one guy to start wars and commit acts of aggression. It’s an insanely dangerous practice, and it’s flat-out illegal. And, incidentally, Congress would be well within its rights to impeach Obama over this and over previously unauthorized uses of force. Granted, previous presidents have done this, but that’s irrelevant to its legality. Even that fucker Bush got AUMFs.

        1. Okay, you brought up the AUMF…

          When you look at the results? I almost wish Bush hadn’t bothered.

          Obama is still citing the AUMF as authorizing him to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad.

          The AUMF has been cited in refusing to let American citizens have a trial or attorney, and they’re still citing the AUMF as a justification for NSA wiretapping.


          I’m with you on the Constitutional stuff, but Jesus, a bad authorization can be as bad or worse than no authorization at all.

          Did the AUMF fig leaf make what Obama continues to do at the NSA possible?

          1. P.S. The AUMF needs to be repealed, already, so freakin’ bad.

            1. The AUMF against Irag is pretty much a declaration of war. The one on terrorism, in my mind, is not. We have to declare war on an actual target, not “terrorists.” I mean, think about it, you could have an open-ended AUMF against People Who Offend Us, which totally guts a non-delegatable power of Congress.

  14. McCain and Graham should be water boarded continuously.

    Then forced to spend some time in a jail cell with their new boyfriend Bubba.

  15. “Congress needs to assert itself by taking an active role in deciding what to do (or not do) about ISIS, rather than simply leaving it up to the president.”

    Congress is more than happy to let the President make the decision for them–because it’s an election year.

    Why would Congressional Democrats want to have to go on the record voting to authorize more fighting in Iraq a few months before an election?

    That’s a controversial vote among their constituents. Why would they want to do that?

    Furthermore, there is no anti-war majority in Congress that would withhold support from Obama on ISIS. The most hay we libertarians can make from this is to show, once again, that Obama is an imperial president who completely disregards the Constitution. But make no mistake, if they put it up to a vote, Obama would win on this in Congress.

    Practically everyone in Congress, except for Amash and Rand Paul, presumably, thinks Obama is doing them a favor by not making them go on the record for more war in Iraq.

    1. They should fight it just on principle–Congress initiates the use of military force, not the president. But, of course, they have no principles, by and large.

      This is a really big deal that people seem to just ignore. We’re allowing one man, totally on his own, to decide whether a state of war exists between us and someone else. Say it’s President McCain and he only wanted to be president to get revenge on Vietnam. By the current logic, he could launch a full-scale assault without so much as mentioning it to Congress.

      1. Relax, ProL, it’s all just part of the Libertarian Moment.

        1. I think I blinked and missed it.

          1. That was just a saccade, not a blink.

      2. Yeah, there isn’t much hope in getting principled people to become politicians. Representative democracy just doesn’t lend itself to that.

        Our best hope is creating a principled electorate.

        When enough of my fellow Americans find this sort of unconstitutional behavior reprehensible, what our representatives in Congress do in these situations will reflect that.

      3. “We” already allowed that same man, totally on his own, to decide that it was OK (“legal”) to murder a US citizen noncombatant who had not been given the benefit of trial (along with his teen-aged son, who wasn’t even verbally accused of any crime beyond kinship). This shouldn’t be much of a surprise…


        1. L’etat? C’est moi.

  16. Make Congress responsible for declaring war and accepting the consequences? You revisionist swine!


  17. According to the WSJ, Obama feels really conflicted about this. But don’t you see that his hands are tied? What else is he supposed to do?

    1. Sf’d the link

  18. The War Nerd summarized the status quo between ISIS, Kurds, Yazidis, etc. about a month and a half ago..

    good piece

  19. While I deplore Obama’s illegal unilateral actions, this is not one of these cases. His rationale for action is to protect US citizens, of which there are a large number in Erbil. This is sufficient justification for limited attacks.

    Beyond that, both sides have to share the blame for Obama’s lack of action in Iraq when it was needed. There is now a clear and present danger to the US there (and in Syria). IS (formerly ISIL and ISIS) has stated its intent to attack the US. It has many more resources than Al Qaeda ever possessed: thousands of trained fighters, many of whom have passports that require no visa to enter the us; large amounts of money – up to $1 billion; lots of military equipment, including stinger missiles and possibly SA-11’s like were used to shoot down MH17. Head-in-the-sand isolationists allowed this to happen, and Obama was one of them.

    Claiming that the 2003 war was a mistake simply does not justify inaction in the recent circumstances. It matters not how we got into this mess, what matters is what we do about it!

    1. You talking about the well armed group trained and funded by the CIA? Us head in the sand isolationists never saw that one coming, no sir.

  20. Not one post by buttplug claiming bush was worse? I signed into this motel WiFi for nuthin.

  21. It is of vital importance to those in power that we as a nation maintain a constant state of war. More money, more power, more control. Krugman must be loving all those broken windows. The Stasi would be wet over the scope of spying by the NSA and the othe alphabits agencies. Stalin’s dreams are being realized, albeit slowly, in Russia, and over the last several decades, here. Between the exec, the judiciary, and the legislative running roughshod over the constitution it does not seem that voting a politician into any elected position would affect any change.

  22. Ironic, as well, that McCain has several times argued for arming pretty much these same folks.

  23. Does the AUMF-2002 (Iraq) have an expiration date?
    If not, he has the authority.
    And if not under “’02”, then probably under AUMF-2001.

  24. As to the ‘false currency’ argument:

    This is why the American People do not trust Libertarians to conduct foreign policy.

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