Emily Larsen, DCNF
During Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing Thursday, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said that President Barack Obama didn’t think he had the authority to strike Syria without congressional authorization.
While Obama did seek congressional approval for a potential Syria strike in 2013, he maintained that he had the legal authority to execute the strike without Congress.
Many senators at the confirmation hearing expressed concern about Pompeo’s position that President Donald Trump does not legally need congressional approval to strike Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack. Murphy contrasted the Trump administration’s stance with the Obama administration’s position in a similar situation in 2013 when Obama wanted to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime accountable for a gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people.
“Many of us have had misgivings about how the executive has expanded the ability to act unilaterally without congressional authorization, both in this administration and prior administrations. There are differences, though,” Murphy said. “President Obama didn’t think he had the authority to launch missile strikes against Syria without congressional authorization. This administration believes it does.”
Obama, though, did believe that he had the power to unilaterally strike Syria. “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” he said in a 2013 statement.
Political analysts thought that Obama might have sought congressional approval to gain political legitimacy for the strike, or because he could easily back away from promises to take action if Congress said that it disagreed. Military action in Syria was unpopular at the time. The U.S. sought to strike Syria in conjunction with the U.K., but the British Parliament rejected a resolution to strike Syria, and polls showed that the majority of Americans opposed military intervention in Syria.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria, but the measure did not make it to a floor vote. Ultimately, Obama did not order a strike in 2013 because Syria unexpectedly agreed to remove its chemical weapons. The regime did not agree to remove chlorine, though, and chlorine gas was used in subsequent chemical attacks.
Following the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, Congress approved Obama’s plan to arm and train Syrian rebels. The U.S. struck terror targets in Syria shortly thereafter, even though Congress did not authorize a blanket use-of-force resolution.
Obama also acted without Congress when he struck Libya in 2011 to enforce a United Nations-imposed no-fly zone and prevent mass killings by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Following that action, Congress rejected a resolution to authorize the use of armed forces in the country, and the House passed a resolution that would have banned the President from deploying troops to Libya.
Congress has not formally declared war since World War II, opting instead for legislation that authorizes the use of military force in particular situations. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 states that the president can only deploy the armed forces if Congress has declared war or authorized the use of military force, or when there is a national emergency such as an attack on the U.S. Presidents maintain that the War Powers Resolution is not constitutional, though.
Nevertheless, President George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump say that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and powers inherent in the executive branch give the president the legal authority to deploy troops and carry out air strikes in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries.
Presidents acted unilaterally even before the 2001 AUMF. President Bill Clinton initiated military operations in Kosovo, and President Ronald Reagan sent troops to Grenada without congressional authorization.
Trump struck Syria without congressional approval on Friday night in response to the April 7 chemical gas attack thought to be executed by the Syrian government. The U.S. coordinated the strike with the British and French, and the Pentagon said that the air strikes successfully hit all targets.
Murphy’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
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