One of the most memorable moments from last week’s Presidential Debate was when Mitt Romney was asked weather the President would need Congressional Approval to launch an attack on Iranian Nuclear Facilities. In many ways, it is the kind of question that no politician wants to be asked. It lacks a clear answer (I’ll say more on this below), and any answer you do give is bound to receive more criticism than applause. Mitt Romney, unfortunately for him, attempted to split the difference between being button happy and a liberal dove – by saying he would consult lawyers. Doh! Sorry, but the last thing people want to hear is that a President does not know the answer to something and must consult people – particularly when lawyers are the ones who must be consulted. To his credit, Romney also stressed the danger of Iranian nukes, but that didn’t stop him from being attacked from both the left and right (literally and figuratively). Ron Paul scoffed at the idea of lawyers, saying that all you need to do is open the Constitution and read it, while Rudy Giuliani took the more hawkish approach – and then criticized Romney after the debate.
Now for the truth behind the politics.
While Romney gave the worst possible answer politically, he probably gave the best possible answer legally. The simple truth is that this issue has no clear (or even “right” answer). In the time Romney had, he could not possibly have done over every point of view, and probably could not has given the question a dignified, responsible answer. For a person to give an even half-way educated guess on the question, he would have to interpret the Constitution, define “war”, study the War Powers Act, and decide exactly how the Supreme Court might rule on the issue. While the Constitution does give Congress the power to declare war, it does not say that it must declare war, and, for that matter, it doesn’t even define exactly what “war” is. There is also the question of the highly disputed War Powers Act, which requires the President to seek authorization within 60 days of the start of hostilities – or else end the conflict. Obviously, you can see that there is more than enough room for debate on this issue.
Two final points, and pay close attention to these:
1) Romney did not say that lawyers would have to be consulted to decide if a threat existed, or if military action should be taken, he simply said said that lawyers would have to be consulted to determine if Congressional Approval is necessary, and that brings me to my second point:
2) Since we live in a post-9/11 and post-Iraq world, it seems highly unlikely that a President would ever act if he did not believe Congress would approve. The decision to attack Iran, if and when it has to be made, will be a serious one, and I find it equally unlikely that it would be made without consultation between the military and the different branches of the Government.