Kerry on Obama Attacking Syria: 'He Has Right to Do That No Matter What Congress Does'

Terence P. Jeffrey | September 2, 2013 | 7:55pm EDT
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Secretary of State John Kerry (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

( - On three national television programs on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated an argument President Barack Obama had made on Saturday when Obama announced that he wanted Congress to authorize him to use military force in Syria.

The president does not need authorization from Congress to initiate acts of war, Kerry said.

“He has the right to do that no matter what Congress does,” Kerry said on CNN’s “State of the Union. “That is his right and he asserted that in his comments yesterday.”

“The President has the right and he has asserted that right that he could do what’s necessary to protect the national security of the United States at any point in time,” said Kerry.

The secretary of state made the same argument on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“I said that the President has the authority to act, but the Congress is going to do what’s right here,” Kerry told host David Gregory.

Kerry also made the argument on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopouos."

“The President has the right--as you know, George,” said Kerry. “The President of the United States has the right to take this action, doesn’t have to go to Congress, but he does so with the belief – and this is why I think it’s courageous--the president knows that America is stronger when we act in unity.”

In a speech delivered in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday, Obama first said that he had decided to take military action in Syria. Then he said that he had also decided to seek congressional authorization for that action. Then he said that he did not need congressional authorization, and could unilaterally order the U.S. military to take action in Syria without congressional authorization.

“Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama said in his Saturday speech.

Then Obama said: “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.”

Then Obama said: “Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.”

When the Constitutional Convention considered the constitutional language governing the war power in August 1787, the draft language presented to the convention said that “Congress shall have the power … to make war…”

According to the notes of the convention that James Madison kept that day, Elbridge Gerry and Madison himself "moved to insert 'declare,' striking out 'make' war; leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks."

Roger Sherman of Connecticut agreed with this language, saying the “Executive shd. be able to repel and not to commence war.”

Gerry himself said he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war;” and George Mason indicated his support for the Madison-Gerry amendment, saying he “was agst giving the power of war to the Executive, because not safely to be trusted with it.”

George Washington, who commanded the American army during the revolution and who presided over the Constitutional Convention, governed according to Madison’s and Gerry’s understanding of the constitutional language they had proposed—and that the convention had approved and the states had ratified—when he served as the nation's first commander in chief.

Washington did not believe the Constitution authorized the president to order military action without congressional authorization unless it was necessary to “repel sudden attacks.”

“The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress,” President Washington wrote in 1793, “therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure."

After Obama gave his speech on Saturday saying that he would seek congressional authorization to attack Syria--while insisting he did not need congressional authorization to attack Syria--the House Republican leadership (including House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and House Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rogers) issued a statement saying that "the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress."

“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress," said the Republcan leaders. "We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised.  In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th.  This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people."

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