In April 2006 I interviewed Scott Ritter, the former chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq from 1991-1998, in a piece for Alternet.org. At the time I asked him about whether he felt the Bush administration would attack Iran, and if they did, whether they would consult Congress, which at the time was in Republican hands. In light of recent rumors that the Bush administration may decide to attack Iran before leaving office, I decided to take another look at the interview and found a section I find particularly relevant today:
Davis: Even if we had a Democratic majority, a lot has been talked about how Bush believes in the “unitary executive theory,” where he can basically go on and just authorize [military action] himself. Do you think he will even consult Congress if we start a bombing campaign on Iran?
Ritter: No, unless the Democrats are able to take over the House and compel him to do this, then no, Bush has no intention. [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice has already let the cat out of the bag where she said she will say nothing that ties the hands of the chief executive, commander-in-chief to do that which he feels is necessary for the security of the United States of America.
Davis: All options are on the table.
Ritter: Yeah, except consulting Congress.
Since I spoke to Ritter, Democrats have taken over both houses of Congress. But they haven’t done anything to challenge the Bush administration’s authority to preemptively attack Iran. Earlier this year Democrats did include a measure in an Iraq war funding bill that would have required the administration to seek Congress’ approval for an attack. But that language was removed after intense lobbying from the pro-Israel group AIPAC. And despite promises that the issue would be voted on separately in a standalone bill, more that six months later, that hasn’t happened. Now some may think that’s not important. After all, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states in no uncertain terms that Congress reserves the sole power to declare war. But that neglects the fact that the United States hasn’t declared war since World War II. All military action taken since then, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq, has been considered to be a “police action,” or has taken place under the auspices of the United Nations. So the idea that President Bush could attack Iran without Congress declaring war, or even consenting in some other manner, isn’t just fear mongering coming from the outer limits of the blogosphere. In fact, as I learned this week, it’s apparently a view shared by the Democratic leadership in Congress. Representative John Larson (D-CT) is the 4th highest ranking Democrat in the House. Earlier this week I asked him how Congress would respond if President Bush decided to take military action. His response was revealing. He and other Democrats apparently share the view that the President could take Iran based on the authorizations to use military force passed after 9/11 and in October 2002 prior to the Iraq war.
Under the bill that was passed, and this is the problem for a lot of members of Congress that voted for the proposal — I did not, I opposed this war, and I opposed it primarily on the basis that it gave him unilateral and preemptive capability. So, the question is, if this transpired what would the Congress do? Well, A, the president under the current law could do this, unless that law is repealed.
To followup, I asked Larson, why, if the President has the power to attack Iran under current law, Congress has yet to vote on a bill requiring him to seek their approval prior to taking military action. According to Larson, Congress has been too busy with other issues. He also revealed that the promise to hold a standalone vote on a bill requiring the administration to consult Congress is apparently dead. He did say that the Democratic leadership would try to attach it as an amendment to an array of defense-related bills, but his statement confirms that earlier promises by Speaker Pelosi to vote on the issue separately won’t be kept. Larson did say that he supports repealing the original authorizations to use force:
I say repeal the authorization, just like Congress did during Vietnam. They repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. They repealed the resolution that got us there in the first place. That takes away the president’s power with respect to unilaterally invading other countries — preemptively striking other countries, not just Iran.
However, Larson offered no timeline as to when, or if, Congress would ever vote on the proposal. And considering the number of leading Democrats who have supported sanctions and other war-like policies towards Iran, the whole issue of the President seeking Congress’ approval might be a moot point. As several Mideast experts I interviewed about the issue told me, Democrats can be just as hawkish as Republicans when it comes to Iran, and as the several bipartisan measures condemning Iran for “inciting genocide” and “meddling” in Iraq show, many of them would likely support military action if it were to take place.
The Democrats’ general unwillingness to challenge President Bush’s authority to attack Iran is one of the reasons antiwar Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-TX) cited for Congress’ dismal 11% approval rating:
The Democrats now that they’re in charge are doing a lot of grandstanding. They could’ve done a lot more [to end the war]. We had a provision that would have prohibited the president from bombing Iran without congressional approval, and that was deliberately removed from the [Iraq war supplemental funding] bill. So even though the Constitution should prohibit him from doing that, the Democrats didn’t want to put any restraints on the president at all, and I think the people see through this.