MUNICH — A debate that permeated a congressional panel at Munich Security Conference is the same question that often permeates Washington: whether an administration should seek congressional authorization for military acts of deterrence.
One attendee addressing the panel at the conference said he winced at the thought of U.S. failed actions in Syria — seeing “that operation unravel, micromanaged, looked over… And then Russians stepped in and the rest is contemporary history.”
He was referring to the effort by President Obama in 2013 to garner congressional support for strikes against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. It ultimately failed. No other authorizations to attack the Islamic State ever happened — and some argue that lack of action in the region became a mark on the Obama presidency.
“I’ve been a governor, I’ve been an executive, I understand there’s certain circumstances where the executive needs to act,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., adding that she voted to take action in Syria. But while she advocated for congressional approval then, she noted on the panel that the president never should have sought authorization in the first place.
“That should’ve happened so fast that Congress couldn’t step in,” she said. “We drew a red line then couldn’t enforce it.”
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But Shaheen and other members on the panel stopped short of advocating unfettered clearance for military acts of deterrence by the executive branch, arguing that there have been examples where such acts did not end well.
There is a threshold, said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces. And to him, a regime change is one of them.
“Libya is a good example,” he said. “If there had been a vote, the outcome might have been different. There was no post-Gadhafi strategy. If you have the debate, you can sometimes change the outcome.”
As for the current state of matters, military authorization is still on the table and an alternative that the administration might pursue — particularly amid conflicts in Syria and areas of Africa.
“We’ve heard from people in the military, Secretary Mattis and others, that it would be helpful to have a real debate about a new authorization for use of military force,” Shaheen said. “It would be good to know where the country is and have the public debate. So far there hasn’t been the political will.”
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.