What's happening in Iraq right now is a catastrophe that can be traced directly back to the terrible decision the U.S. made to invade Iraq in 2003. As Josh Marshall explains at Talking Points Memo, none of this excuses Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship in any way. It simply demonstrates the folly of believing that a U.S. invasion would magically transform Iraq into a "united, stable and free country" as President George W. Bush promised in 2003.
Graham, McCain, and other Senate Republicans "have begun pushing the White House to authorize airstrikes to combat the Al Qaeda-inspired militant groups that captured two key Iraqi cities [last] week and are now poised to march on Baghdad." Speaker of the House John BoehnerJohn BoehnerMarch is the biggest month for GOP in a decade House markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Conservatives to Congress: Get moving MORE (R-Ohio) complained that President Obama is "[t]aking a nap" as ISIS forces push toward Baghdad. Graham is irresponsibly ratcheting up fear, warning that "[t]his is another 9/11 in the making." This is reminiscent of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's dire (but unsubstantiated) warning in 2002 that "we don't want the smoking gun [regarding claims about nuclear weapons in Iraq] to be a mushroom cloud."
McCain, Graham, Boehner and others who are calling on the Obama administration to order military action in Iraq are making at least two serious errors. First, they assume that military action by the U.S. could produce positive change. As even McCain confusingly concedes, what's happening in Iraq is "so serious, [he's] not sure exactly how it can be done." McCain is right that it's not clear the U.S. could do anything to help in Iraq. Suggesting that it's up to the Obama administration to magically produce a military solution is unrealistic. Secondly, even if military action by the U.S. did make sense, Obama simply does not possess unilateral authority to act. The president can only unilaterally order military action in an emergency situation to defend the U.S. or its military against a sudden attack. The Constitution does not authorize the president to use military force in other circumstances without congressional approval. The War Powers Resolution (which, as a statute, cannot change the constitutional framework) does not provide authority for the president to order military action in Iraq under the circumstances. Advocates of unilateral presidential authority to act will cite past practice. However, the fact that presidents since Truman have ordered unilateral offensive military action with impunity does not make such action constitutional. Moreover, there is now some contrary precedent. Obama decided not to order military action in Syria last summer without congressional approval. That precedent demonstrates Congress has the ability to set limits on presidential power — if Congress chooses to assert its own constitutional authority.
McCain, Graham, Boehner and others in Congress who are calling on the Obama administration to act in Iraq are ceding their own institutional authority to decide whether the nation should go to war. Even if they were right about the need for the U.S. to intervene, the question would not be whether Obama will act alone, but, rather, whether Congress will provide statutory authority for action. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to agree with the incorrect assumption that the president can act alone — Obama is reportedly considering the possibility of unilaterally ordering airstrikes. This would be a mistake, and would add to the dangerous precedent that the president can order offensive military action without congressional authorization.
What is happening in Iraq right now is horrifying and ghastly. However, it is far from obvious that U.S. intervention could help, and it would be a mistake for Obama to make a unilateral decision. Rather than urging the president to order ill-advised military action in Iraq, members of Congress ought to be insisting on their own authority to decide against taking the nation to war.
Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.