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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a Senate committee on Wednesday that the US would “seek permission” from international organizations before committing the military to war. He also made it clear that the Obama administration does not feel it necessary to “inform” Congress or get their authorization for military action.
The secretary was responding to a question about potential US military action in Syria — a pertinent query since President Obama recently authorized the Pentagon to look at what kind of missions our intervention in Syria might require.
The prospect of some kind of international response to the massacres in Syria is growing as several countries are calling for arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and there has been talk of forcing the issue of humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people in Homs and other flashpoints of the rebellion. And as refugees flee from Homs, overburdening Lebanon and Turkey, tales are being told of the horrific attacks made by President Bashar Assad’s troops on civilian enclaves and the atrocities committed by by the dreaded Shabiha militia.
Several high profile defections – both military and civilian government officials — have given a boost to the FSA as well as the civilian opposition, the Syrian National Council, who is still trying to get organized. Indeed, the inability of the opposition to present a united front, as well as uncertainty surrounding the makeup of the FSA has made the rest of the world cautious about giving arms and other support to the rebel cause.
This was the basis of questions directed at Secretary Panetta at the Senate hearing; how would the Obama administration go about fulfilling its obligation under the War Powers Act? In a testy exchange, Senator Jeff Sessions asked Panetta, “We spend our time worrying about the U.N., the Arab League, NATO and too little time, in my opinion, worrying about the elected representatives of the United States. As you go forward, will you consult with the United States Congress?”
Panetta’s response surprised many on the committee: “You know, our goal would be to seek international permission. And we would come to the Congress and inform you and determine how best to approach this, whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress.”
Sessions gave Panetta several opportunities to clarify his remarks, but each time he was asked about informing Congress or getting their authorization for military action, he reiterated his position that the US couldn’t go to war unless it received some kind of mandate from the international community and, even more shockingly, that the White House was under no obligation to get the permission of Congress.
Democrat Carl Levin tried to give Panetta a chance to walk back his statement about the US needing permission to commit our troops. “I don’t think the word permission is appropriate even in that context. By the way, I think what — you really corrected it when you said a legal basis in international law would help you achieve an international coalition.” Panetta responded, “That’s correct” — but it wasn’t. The Secretary never clarified his statement and stuck to his original premise.
An unidentified spokesman at the Pentagon tried to undo the damage: “He was re-emphasizing the need for an international mandate. We are not ceding U.S. decision-making authority to some foreign body,” he said. That’s a relief to hear but it doesn’t change the fact that given several opportunities to alter his position, Panetta insisted that the US needed an “international mandate” to go to war.
Just as troubling was the notion that the administration doesn’t feel the need to inform, or get authorization for war, from Congress. Senator Sessions spoke for many on the committee when he said Panetta’s comments were “very revealing of the mindset” of the administration and that Panetta didn’t seem to understand that his comments went against the fundamentals of our government. The administration already violated the law when, during the Libyan campaign, the president refused to seek congressional approval for continued US participation in the international coalition. This despite the fact that the War Powers Act stipulates that if US troops are committed for more than 60 days, the president must get the permission of Congress.
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