One of the key moments in the 2004 presidential campaign occurred in a debate, when John Kerry suggested that America’s military policy needs to pass a “global test” before it can be implemented. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier today, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta went farther than Kerry, suggesting that “international permission” is the “legal basis” for any armed action by the United States, rather than the Constitution or authorization by Congress. Here is the exchange:
This is a partial transcript:
SESSIONS: Do you think you can act without Congress and initiate a no-fly zone in Syria without congressional approval?
PANETTA: Our goal would be to seek international permission… Whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress—I think those are issues we would have to discuss as we decide what to do here.
SESSIONS: Well I am almost breathless about that because what I heard you say is, “we’re going to seek international approval and we’ll come and tell the Congress what we might do, and we might seek congressional approval” … Wouldn’t you agree that would be pretty breathtaking to the average American?
PANETTA: If we are working with an international coalition or NATO we would want to be able to get appropriate permissions in order to be able to do that. All of these countries would want to have some kind of legal basis on which to act.
SESSIONS: What “legal basis” are you looking for? What entity?
PANETTA: If NATO made the decision to go in, that would be one. If we developed an international coalition beyond NATO then obviously some kind of U.N. security resolution would be the basis for that.
SESSIONS: So you are saying NATO would give you a “legal basis?” And an ad hoc coalition of nations would provide a “legal basis?”
PANETTA: We would seek whatever legal basis we would need in order to make that justified. We can’t just pull them all together without getting the legal basis on which to act.
SESSIONS: I’m all for having international support, but I’m really baffled by the idea that somehow an international assembly provides a legal basis for the United States military to be deployed in combat. I don’t think it’s close to being correct. They provide no legal authority. The only legal authority that’s required to deploy the U.S. military is the Congress and the president and the law in the Constitution.
The Obama administration will likely try to walk this back, but Panetta’s testimony offers a window into how members of the Obama administration actually think.