LA Times discussion of Obama’s speech last night featuring Edelson commentary

Read it here or below.

Less than two weeks ago, the Obama administration appeared determined to take military action against Syria. A familiar pattern seemed to be playing out. Since World War II, presidents have claimed unilateral power to use military force without authorization from Congress. Obama had already followed this precedent himself when he ordered military action in Libya in 2011 without seeking approval from Congress.

Despite the fact that unilateral presidential military action can only be justified under the Constitution when the president is responding to an attack or imminent attack against the United States, presidential practice has stubbornly asserted itself as precedent — in part because Congress has consistently failed to check presidential authority.

This time, surprisingly, it was different. In the speech Obama gave Tuesday, he acknowledged that, given the fact that the United States faced and faces no imminent threat from Syria, the better course was for him to go to Congress. Congress deserves credit for asserting itself — more than 100 legislators signed on to letters insisting that the president not act alone, creating mounting pressure on Obama to rethink his approach. The president also deserves credit for recognizing that going to Congress was the right thing to do.

The speech showed why Obama was right to go to Congress — as he emphasized, diplomatic efforts have begun to show promise. When he announced his decision to seek legislative approval, critics argued that he was undermining the power of the presidency. John Yoo, a Department of Justice lawyer in the George W. Bush administration who has championed broad, essentially unchecked, presidential power, insisted that only the president could take the quick, decisive military action required. As Obama observed Tuesday, though, speedy action was not what was needed. Sometimes, it is better not to act. The benefit, in this case, was that diplomacy has been given a chance to work. If nothing else, the chain of events over the last 10 days should put to rest the argument that presidents are best positioned to make decisions about the use of military force because they have the ability to act quickly.

As Congress has begun to consider a use-of-force resolution authorizing military action in Syria, some have asked what Obama would do if lawmakers said no. He has said — and he said again Tuesday night — that he believes he has the authority to act alone (though he is wrong about this, in my view). However, Obama said that he has asked Congress to postpone voting on the pending legislation. This is a wise move that ought to divert attention from the question of what he might do if Congress votes no. As the president suggested, putting off voting in Congress gives more time for diplomatic efforts to play out. It also provides additional evidence that those like Yoo who insist on the value of speedy presidential action in the context of war are wrong. Outside of the emergency context, unilateral presidential military action is neither wise nor constitutional. Sometimes, immediate military action isn’t the right choice.

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs, where he teaches classes on the Constitution and presidential power. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror.”

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