Friday, January 19, 2007

Pre-emptive strike on Iran

... By Democrats, aimed at the president.

Democratic leaders in Congress lobbed a warning shot Friday at the White House not to launch an attack against Iran without first seeking approval from lawmakers.

"The president does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking congressional authorization," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record), D-Nev., told the National Press Club.

Reid's wording invokes the War Powers Act, a law that no president has ever accepted as valid -- even though they tend to obey it in order to avoid provoking a Constitutional confrontation that they might lose.

As a practical matter, Reid's words are as toothless as the upcoming resolution opposing the troop surge in Iraq, which is garnering increasing bipartisan support. Neither the Iraq resolution nor the Iran warning can effectively prevent Bush from doing whatever he wants in the short-term, in either place.

But they do serve a handful of useful purposes. They put Congress on record as opposing the president's actions; they serve notice that funding for such actions will be closely scrutinized and debated; and they raise the political cost to the president for pursuing such actions, because they essentially isolate Bush. In order to attack Iran, for instance, he would have to acknowledge that he was doing so entirely on his own initiative, without the backing of the people's representatives. In normal political calculations, that makes it less likely that such an attack will occur.

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Will Bush simply ignore Congress? He can do that for a little while, but not forever. Will he call their presumed bluff? Risky, if they're not actually bluffing. Will he try to co-opt them? I can imagine him going to Congress in a classified briefing and saying "Iran is about to develop nuclear weapons. Here are the production sites; we need to bomb them." What will Congress do then?

The answer to that last question isn't that important from a constitutional viewpoint; the consultation is the important thing. I expect Bush to play political hardball in pursuit of what he thinks is right; but he should get Congress on board for his plans if he wants those plans to have any staying power after the dust settles.

Tangent: My second link leads with the White House calling Pelosi's attack on the "surge" plan "poison" and not in the spirit of bipartisanship. For my money, Congress is supposed to have a somewhat adversarial relationship with the executive branch; that's what "checks and balances" mean. I expect Pelosi to work cordially with Congressional Republicans; they are her colleagues. And I expect her to seek common ground and compromise with the president where possible and necessary. But the White House complaining that Congress has tired of being a doormat for the president misses the point. Congress is a private club, and the president is not a member; get used to it. Republican deference helped the pendulum of power swing way over to the executive side of the ledger in the last six years; a correction is not only to be expected, but desired.

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