Sunday, August 12, 2007

Attack on Iran and Congressional war powers

Most reporting from the McClatchy news service (formerly Knight-Ridder) stands above the competition, but nobody's perfect. A recent story by Matt Stearns vastly overstates Congressional opposition to a U.S. military strike in Iran. This passage [via TPM] made my jaw drop:
It's been the consensus for months among the Democrats who hold the majority that Bush must get congressional authorization before any military strike [on Iran].
Orilly? Then why was a provision requiring such an authorization stripped from the Democratic leadership's version of the Pentagon supplemental spending bill in March before ever coming to a vote? Why did a similar standalone bill go down to defeat in May with 100 Democratic members voting against it? And why does Stearns not even mention either event?

He does report on Jim Webb's bill to forbid spending on any attack on Iran without explicit authorization from Congress. He notes Harry Reid's (verbal) support for it, but fails to ask why, if that's so, the bill hasn't even gotten committee consideration, much less a floor vote, as an amendment or on its own. Reid's chief of staff is quoted predicting that some Republicans will vote no on a resolution to authorize an attack on Iran, blandly assuming that Bush will ask for such an authorization. But it's clear from the sole Republican quoted that the only issue for them is whether there'll be a request for an authorizing resolution, not how they'd vote.

A military affairs aide to a Democratic senator (who would apparently only speak anonymously) predicts that an attack on Iran without Congressional authorization would create an "uproar over here. It would be a serious breach of (the limits on) executive power." Ooooh, an "uproar" in Congress; remind Dick Cheney to shake.

That part Stearns does get right:
Bush and Vice President Cheney take a broad view of executive power, and it's unclear what consequences Bush would face if he were to take action without authorization.

Many on Capitol Hill said the reaction would depend largely on the provocation used as a rationale for an attack.
Anyone under the illusion that Bush believes he needs authorization from Congress should read Webb's floor statement introducing his bill on March 5:

[T]he President's "signing statement" accompanying the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq indicates that this Administration believes it possesses the broadest imaginable authority to commence military action without the consent of the Congress.

In signing the 2002 Iraq resolution, the President denied that the Congress has the power to affect his decisions when it comes to the use of our military. He shrugged off this resolution, stating that on the question of the threat posed by Iraq, his views and those of the Congress merely happened to be the same. He characterized the resolution as simply a gesture of additional support, rather than as having any legitimate authority. He stated, "my signing this resolution does not constitute any change in ... the President's constitutional authority to use force to deter, prevent, or respond to aggression or other threats to U.S. interests..."
The idea that in the unlikely event an authorization vote were to take place, enough Democrats or Republicans would oppose an attack on Iran to defeat it, is wishful thinking.

The only conceivable thing that could bring about such a result is large-scale, visible protest and political pressure. Right now the carrier group Enterprise is alone in the Gulf; it will be joined by the Truman in late October or November. All this summer our ruling regime has been pushing the latest of the shifting rationales, supposed Iranian support for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, which the Senate last month voted 97-0 for the opportunity to consider seriously every 60 days from here on out (something else Stearns leaves out of his story). Will the regime "roll out the product" after Labor Day?

Update: 3:00 pm 15 August - More signs point to 'yes':

The United States has decided to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's 125,000-strong elite military branch, as a "specially designated global terrorist," according to U.S. officials, a move that allows Washington to target the group's business operations and finances.
In addition to other consequences, this move would (in the regime's view) put Iran within the scope of the existing authorization for use of military force passed in September 2001. No other Congressional action needed.

So, even if one accepts Stearns' characterization that leading Democrats believe that existing law would require Bush to come to Congress for authorizaton before an attack on Iran, they have just been given the clearest possible signal that that's not going to happen. If members of Congress truly want to make sure the American people and the administration understand that such authorization is required, then they need to get the Webb bill and its House counterpart passed, and quickly.

Update 2: 12:30 pm 16 August - Congress has helped lay the political groundwork for an attack in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way so far, and the sleepwalking will continue. From the same Post story linked in the first update:

The administration's move comes amid growing support in Congress for the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which was introduced in the Senate by Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and in the House by Tom Lantos (D-Calif.). The bill already has the support of 323 House members.
A quick check of the bill in Thomas shows that the House will be making itself part of the drumbeat for war as soon as it comes back from recess:

Title: To enhance United States diplomatic efforts with respect to Iran by imposing additional economic sanctions against Iran, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep Lantos, Tom [CA-12] (introduced 3/8/2007) Cosponsors (323)
Latest Major Action: 8/2/2007 House Committee on Judiciary granted an extension for further consideration ending not later than Sept. 7, 2007.
Yes, that'll certainly "enhance diplomatic efforts."

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At 10:14 PM, August 14, 2007, Blogger Gary Farber said...

"Then why was a provision requiring such an authorization stripped from the Democratic leadership's version of the Pentagon supplemental spending bill in March before ever coming to a vote?"

I have absolutely no idea what the actual facts are, so please don't take this as any true speculation as to what they are, let alone any sort of assertion that this is correct, as so far as I know, it's as apt to be incorrect, but it seems to me a perfectly reasonable, and in fact seems to me the likely reasonable interpretation of this, purely as English, "It's been the consensus for months among the Democrats who hold the majority that Bush must get congressional authorization before any military strike [on Iran" is that it means that the "consensus" is that "Bush [is currently legally required to] get congressional authorization before any military strike [on Iran."

As I said, this may simply be a badly written sentence -- goodness knows that totally incomprehensible ones make it into papers every day -- but that is my first reading of the quote you offer, which would answer your question.

But maybe it's just a bad sentence, and thus this interpretation is entirely incorrect.

"A military affairs aide to a Democratic senator (who would apparently only speak anonymously) predicts that an attack on Iran without Congressional authorization would create an "uproar over here. It would be a serious breach of (the limits on) executive power." Ooooh, an
'uproar' in Congress; remind Dick Cheney to shake."

Fair response, but this does seem to me to again confirm my reading of what the meaning of these words were: that the Democrats have a consensus that a Bush attack on Iran would be illegal. Does it turn out that that's not what they believe, though? (Whether they're correct as a matter of law, and what might be done if there was an attack anyway, are separate questions.)

At 2:49 PM, August 15, 2007, Blogger Nell said...

Gary, I appreciate your question, and the chance to answer it, because I had it myself. McClatchy reporting has earned the benefit of the doubt. When I read Stearns' story, I tried to find a way to square his sentence with the actions and statements of the Democratic leadership on this issue. But I just couldn't do it.

If Harry Reid believes that it's already illegal for the administration to launch an attack on Iran without Congressional authorization, then why would he have said about Webb's bill that he thought it was a good idea? Wouldn't he have said, "I certainly agree with Sen. Webb that the President must get Congressional authorization, but I don't think we need any new legislation to make that so."

Nor would he have given Webb the idea that his bill might be attached to the Pentagon supplemental as an amendment.

Pelosi approved the original version of the Democrats' Pentagon supplemental appropriation, which included a requirement for separate authorization for any attack on Iran. When she removed it, she did so under pressure from members who were getting lobbied, primarily by AIPAC activists from their districts (she made the announcement the evening after the lobby day that accompanies the AIPAC national policy conference). She didn't say "we don't need this because it would be illegal for Bush to attack Iran without authorization." She removed it because the provision endangered a solid Democratic vote on the supplemental. That's the opposite of a Democratic consensus that Bush must get authorization.

At that time, she promised antiwar House members a separate vote on the authorization issue. They got it, and the results show quite clearly that the Pelosi-Hoyer-Emanuel team did no lobbying for a 'yes' vote. I have been unable to find any examples of anyone in the House leadership or any senior Democrat expressing the view that a 'no' vote would be fine because the Constitution already required Bush to get authorization. The floor debate shows that 'no' votes were motivated by a willingness to see the U.S. government attack Iran or by an unwillingness to be seen to "tie the President's hands" in dealing with "the Iranian threat".

If there's an actual consensus that attack without Congressional authorization is illegal, it's odd that the military affairs staffer of a senior Dem would feel it necessary to speak anonymously.

At 3:40 PM, August 15, 2007, Blogger Gary Farber said...

Fair enough; thanks for your analysis and info.

At 3:24 AM, August 17, 2007, Blogger hapa said...

phenomenal situation. if there was ever more cover offered for caution than by the iraq occupation -- hard to believe. it's almost like it's 1972 and we're contemplating air strikes against chinese nuke facilities. "it depends how they sell it." what's the difference? is it because we have better overhead views of targets? nobody wants to be the one who said, "i'll take that risk, over taking innocent lives," when a military facility spy shot is staring them in the face? if that's it, what a beautiful trap.

At 1:18 PM, August 17, 2007, Blogger Nell said...

hapa: what's the difference [between now and 1972]? is it because we have better overhead views of targets?

This isn't about weapons.

At 11:37 AM, August 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Nell. I was reading Your analysis and commentary to Sue this morning and saying how incisive and amazing this blogger was, when I realized it was you.... We are so proud of your great work on this blog and miss you so. Keep up the great work and look us up in DC. We are on 4th Street NW in a co-housing community with free guest rooms. Rory is almost 15 and going into high school this year.

Go Nell Go....La Lucha Continua

At 11:38 AM, August 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops i forgot to say that the last comment was from Paul Schwartz

At 2:14 PM, August 18, 2007, Blogger Nell said...

Thanks, Paul! And it's wonderful to hear that you and Sue are still luchando and within easy visiting range.

How did you find the blog? It's pretty obscure... I still do more commenting on other blogs than posting on my own.

Best wishes to your son this fall -- big transition! My email's in my profile; drop me a line.

At 2:27 PM, August 18, 2007, Blogger hapa said...

i should be more clear. i'm not wondering about strategic goals, i'm wondering why beltway dems appear only "concerned" if this administration starts another war. it's the issue of the now 17 months. there appears to be consensus that actions taken against iraq were completely FU and now BAR and that this was caused by fundamental deficiencies at the white house. supporting bush-cheney military pressure on iran while only mildly speaking against an attack appears to contradict that consensus.

what i'm asking is, even if it's only a soft feeling among dems that what we did to iraq is to be avoided in the future, what kinds of things might make them support action now rather than waiting a year and a half for a competent (from their stated perspective) administration.

At 3:16 AM, August 19, 2007, Blogger Nell said...

hapa: what kinds of things might make [Dems] support action now rather than waiting a year and a half for a competent (from their stated perspective) administration

It isn't that they support action now, but that they're not willing to actively oppose action now -- because that would require explicitly rejecting the premises of the Cheney-Bush regime's policy toward Iran, and acting pro-actively to remove the regime's power to launch a military attack. That would be "taking it off the table", which Dems think would make them look weak.

Dems share (or do not wish to be seen not to share) those basic premises (especially the idea that Iran is a threat to Israel's very existence), and this places them in the position of being able to argue only that "Iran is a threat, but we'll attack more competently" or (at the outer liberal edge) "we'll conduct more effective diplomacy".

The fact that the executive power is wielded by people who truly brook no opposition in these matters -- from Congress or anyone else short of the Supreme Court -- has yet to sink in fully with the
Democratic "leadership". That's why they pretend to themselves that Bush will seek Congressional authorization before attacking, and even that there will be solid opposition from Democrats and that they'll be joined by "sensible Republicans".

All they have is hope, that it would just be too insane for the regime to attack Iran, too risky, etc. But they've gone along with all the arguments that the regime will use, and have not been willing to put up any roadblocks at all. So if Cheney convinces Bush to order the attack, or an Iranian provocation can be arranged, it's on.

At 12:42 PM, August 20, 2007, Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

I suppose this muddies the waters a bit, but anyway, I got this e-mail from my Rep., Chris Van Hollen about his disappointing Iran vote (almost exactly when I got the one about impeaching Cheney, a couple of weeks ago). In it VH says,

I fully support the content of the proposal you made. I am, however, somewhat wary of passing legislation that says the President may not violate the Constitution with respect to one country (such as Iran), because singling out one country only could lead to the false impression that the Congress would countenance unauthorized and unconstitutional military actions against another country (such as Syria).

This was a new one on me. I didn't know what to make of it, and so didn't blog about it, but it seems relevant, if only to demonstrate VH is looking for a fig leaf rationale for his vote. (To my chagrin, I don't have a verbatim copy of the proposal I made, but I think I simply echoed it in my blog post about this, which simply reiterated DeFazio's position which Van Hollen voted against.)

At 2:27 PM, August 20, 2007, Blogger Nell said...

Thanks very much for this information, Thomas. It doesn't muddy the waters at all, in my view. It articulates the Democratic leadership's line, a perfect excuse for their failure to support authorization-requiring legislation.

And, in the most technical sense, it's true. Jim Webb would prefer a country in which no such legislation would be required.

But the administration's written insistence that no authorization is required, on top of the War Powers Act's muddying of the issue for decades, expose van Hollen's rationale as a figleaf.

The test would be whether he would support legislation that didn't name a specific country. Legislation which I believe Robert Byrd introduced in the Senate. Maybe I'm wrong about that, I'll look it up.


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