Panetta: International Mandate Trumps Congressional Authorization for Wars

In Discussion of Potential Syrian War, US Following the Libya Model

It perhaps goes without saying that the Obama Administration considers Congress all but irrelevant to the question of its foreign policy, but speaking today at a House hearing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it anyway.

Pressed by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R – AL) on the legal basis for a potential war with Syria, Panetta repeatedly referred to seeking an international mandate, saying that the administration’s goal was “international permission” for such a war, and that Congress would be “informed” once that was obtained.

Sessions repeatedly asked for clarification, pointing out that the War Powers Act explicitly requires Congressional authorization for a war, but Panetta would only say, beyond his repeated calls for NATO or UN imprimatur, that there would be discussion in the administration as to “whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress.”

Though the Pentagon later insisted that Panetta was not “ceding US decision-making authority to some foreign body,” Panetta’s comments made it clear how little role the administration believes Congress has in the matter. He repeatedly said the president had the power under the Constitution to act unilaterally to “defend the United States,” though his examples — Syria, Libya, Bosnia — arguably have little to do with the safety of Americans.

This was the administration’s model in the 2011 Libya war. Launched in March, the White House first cited the 60-day grace period granted in the War Powers Act to seek Congressional authorization for the attack, predicting it would be over before then. Some 90 days later, the administration claimed the Act didn’t apply because Libya wasn’t “technically a war.”

The war in Libya was unique in cutting Congress out entirely of a commitment to conflict. Previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rested on at least some Congressional authorization, even if well short of the Constitutionally required declaration of war. Having gotten away with it in Libya, the administration seems content that Congress is a purely optional element in any future war. It seems NATO and the UN hold more authority over the United States’ armed forces; they potentially have additional international troops to offer.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.