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Opinion

September 7, 2013

Shribman: The Syria debate: The questions accumulate

(Continued)

That is more important than it may appear, for this precedent could undercut the president’s ability to mount a surprise attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities later this year or early next year. The president can no longer say, in negotiations with Tehran, that nothing is off the table. A clandestine attack almost surely would be.

As for the historical view, presidential specialists have long monitored the executive branch’s grabs for power and Congress’ counterpunches. The creation of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger described as the “imperial presidency” was met, for example, by the War Powers Act of 1973. That restricted presidential action and has been opposed by every president since Richard Nixon, who was not bashful about unilateral presidential action in foreign affairs. That prompts the next question:

What will be the state of presidential war-making power post-Obama, and has he redrawn the parameters of his successors’ prerogatives?

The answer is simple: Maybe. It is true that there have been only 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is counted twice, which is why Obama is referred to as the 44th president). It is also true that the presidency is cumulative. As in high school mathematics, you cannot take Algebra II without having mastered Algebra I.

And yet this is an ineluctable truth about American politics: Presidents reach back into history for power and authority only when it is in their interests to do so.

If Obama wanted to attack Syria without congressional authority, he could have cited Lyndon Johnson in the Dominican Republic or George H.W. Bush in Panama. Those presidents, one a Democrat and one a Republican but — not unimportant in this regard — both Texans, did not ask for congressional approval in operations that were more extended and certainly closer to home than Obama’s operation in Syria.

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