Kerry: Obama doesn't need approval from Congress
John Kerry: Obama Can Bomb Assad Even If Congress Votes No
WASHINGTON -- Even as he beseeches former colleagues in Congress to vote for President Barack Obama's plan to bomb Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear in an interview with The Huffington Post that he thinks the president has the right to order air strikes in the face of congressional disapproval.
If that scenario were to materialize -- a bombing campaign after a "no" vote -- the result would almost certainly be an impeachment drive in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Citing their role as commander-in-chief, U.S. presidents have assumed ever-greater latitude in ordering apparent acts of war without obtaining Congress' permission, as the letter of the Constitution requires. Firing cruise missiles and/or dropping bombs on the military infrastructure of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime would be an "act of war," according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- especially since the United States would not be enforcing a United Nations-sanctioned enforcement mission.
At first, as evidence mounted that Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people in the midst of a two-year-old civil war, Obama tentatively decided to follow his recent predecessors and take action on his own, without seeking support in a congressional vote. Then last week the president surprised his own aides (including Kerry) and changed his mind, apparently because he lacked much international support and because he wanted to spread the domestic political risk.
But even though Obama is now seeking Congress' support, Kerry insisted that the president is not bound by law to stand down should his plan be rejected.
Hadn't the president in essence ceded that leeway by coming to Congress? I asked the secretary of state.
The answer, he said, was no.
"Constitutionally, every president, Republican and Democrat alike, has always reserved to the presidency, to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the right to make a decision with respect to American security," Kerry said during an interview in his State Department reception room on Thursday.
"Bill Clinton went to Kosovo over the objections of many people and saved lives and managed to make peace because he did something that was critical at the time. Many presidents have done that. Reagan did it. Bush did it. A lot of presidents have made a decision that they have to protect the nation.
"Now. I can't tell you what judgment the president will make if, in three weeks, Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons again. But the president reserves the right in the presidency to respond as appropriate to protect the security of our nation."
The constitutional question aside, wouldn't the president risk a political firestorm if he were to move ahead in the face of a "no" vote, should one come to pass?
"I am not going to speculate about it because I hope Congress will exercise its best judgment," Kerry said, by supporting the president's "unbelievably limited and tailored" plan.
"Tailored" though the plan may be, Kerry offered a rather murky, "trust us" explanation for how the Obama administration could obliterate Assad's chemical weapons delivery systems without risking dispersal of the weapons themselves into even worse hands.
How can it be done? Kerry was asked.
"By being very thoughtful in your selection of what you do," he replied, "so that you do not undo his ability to be able to maintain and guard the actual stockpiles. Stockpiles are spread out in various parts of the country.
"And we know where they are. And the United States is obviously going to be very careful not to do something that makes matters worse. You know, we've sat around and talked through all of those issues."
During a 24-minute interview, Kerry reiterated the themes and points he has been pressing, with limited success, in public and behind closed doors in Congress.
The essence: that evidence of Assad's perfidious use of chemical weapons is clear "beyond a reasonable doubt"; that the mission to punish him and "degrade" his chemical weapons capability is narrowly targeted; that the material will not fall into the wrong hands; that there is a greater risk of the spread of such weapons if the U.S. does not act; that there is a critical mass of trustworthy opposition forces such that al-Qaeda would not take over if Assad were forced out; that even though the U.S. wants Assad gone, the U.S. will not put ground troops in Syria for any purpose.
Kerry argued that his own history as an anti-war Vietnam War veteran has given him a deep skepticism of military intelligence and military solutions, which, in his view, makes him a more credible advocate now.
But at times during the interview, the distant echo of Vietnam-era rationales and rationalizations -- domino theories, fears of being seen as a weak "paper tiger," assurances that we would avoid local civil wars and their military "quagmires" -- was deafening.
Still, the secretary of state did his best to make the case.
Here is the full transcript: