House passes meaningless, unwise resolution on use of force against Iran

Yesterday, the House passed a resolution designed to prevent President Trump from taking additional military action against Iran without specific congressional authorization. The resolution calls on the president “to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran” unless Congress declares war or enacts “specific statutory authorization” for the use of armed forces.

Three Republicans and an independent voted for the resolution. Eight Democrats voted against it. These legislators are identified in this article.

The House resolution does not bind the president. It just reflects the House’s opinion.

The Senate, though, might take up legislation that, could have the force of law. Senate Democrats hope to pick up enough Republican votes to secure passage.

Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee are on board. Democrats hope that if they soften the House resolution a little bit — e.g. by removing language that addresses Trump by name — they can get to 51 votes.

Even if they accomplish this, and even if the House then passes the same legislation, the president will surely veto it, as he should.

I agree with Andy McCarthy that congressional attempts, other than through appropriations, to limit the president’s ability to strike at our enemies through means that fall short of real war are very likely unconstitutional. Article II of the Constitution gives the president, as commander-in-chief, the power to use military force to protect our country and its interests from foreign threats — threats like those posed by General Suleimani. That authority cannot be limited by a mere statute.

The House resolution is also unwise. Suppose President Trump secured a declaration of war against Iran or specific authorization to use our armed forces against the regime. This would only escalate our feud with Iran.

Acting as he did, Trump was able to take out a major terrorist, prevent (hopefully) specific attacks that this terrorist was planning, and send a strong message to the Iranian regime that (as Sen. Tom Cotton says) might well restore our deterrence of that regime — all without an open declaration of hostilities. There’s reason to believe, or at least hope, that, with Iran now having responded rather tepidly, the situation will deescalate.

There would be less reason to think this might occur had Congress declared war or something like war. And if Congress had refused to grant authorization, this would have emboldened the mullahs and left the president unable to accomplish what he achieved by killing Soleimani, as well as what he might be able to achieve through limited use of force going forward. (It also seems clear that even with congressional approval, the particular operation against Soleimani couldn’t have been carried out given timing considerations.)

Finally, a few words about Mike Lee. He claims that when administration officials briefed Senators they communicated that lawmakers “need to be good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public.”

I have no confidence that Lee is correctly characterizing what administration officials said. It’s at least as likely that this is spin resulting from the Senator’s strongly held view on the merits or, perhaps, his exaggerated sense of importance.

But even if Lee’s characterization is correct, it’s no excuse for passing legislation of dubious constitutionality that would impair our ability to deal flexibly and efficiently with our enemies. Lee’s pique is not grounds for making America less secure.

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