Congressional approval for a punitive-deterrent strike against Syria’s use of chemical weapons should not be misunderstood by Iran, Israel, or anyone else. The decision, which involved many moving parts, was not intended to show any weakened resolve to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Nor was it intended to represent any American trend toward increasing isolationism, either in relation to the world in general or the Middle East in particular.
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The president’s decision to take his case to Congress was the result of a complex of reasons, both constitutional and political. It was made by a president who had campaigned on the principle that congressional approval for non-emergency military actions is generally desirable and sometimes legally required. But it was also made by a president who had committed our nation to a red line, which if crossed, would demand a response.
Hence the conflict: A president cannot commit his nation to a red line if he is also committed to securing congressional approval before responding to the crossing of that red line. What if Congress denies approval? Must the president still keep his red line commitment? If he does not, what does this say about other red line commitments, such as that made regarding Iran’s efforts to secure nuclear weapons? How will Iranian mullahs interpret the president’s decision to go to Congress? And how will the Israeli government respond to it? Will misunderstandings increase the likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran? These questions and the uncertainty of the answers reflect the dilemma posed by the president’s decision to go to Congress after drawing a red line that Syria has crossed.
There is a way out of this dilemma, at least with regard to Iran and its future actions. The president should secure congressional approval now as to the red line with Iran.
President Obama should ask Congress for authorization now to take military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program if it were to cross the red line he has already drawn. If Congress gives its approval, that action will increase the deterrent threat currently directed against Iran, by underscoring the red line as having been drawn both by the president and by Congress. It should leave no doubt in the minds of the Iranian mullahs that the president not only has the will to enforce the red line but also has the authority from Congress to do so.
Having the authority to engage in military action does not require that the president take such action; it only empowers him to do so if he chooses, without further action by Congress. But as President Obama has repeatedly warned: he does not bluff; if he says he will not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons, he means it—unless Congress stops him. If Congress were now to give advance approval to the red line with Iran, the mullahs will understand that there will be no stopping the President from keeping his word. Only if the mullahs believe that President Obama will attack their nuclear reactors if they cross the red line will there be any hope of deterring them from doing so. The goal is not to have the President actually attack Iran. It is to persuade Iran that he will do so if they defy the will of Congress, the President and the American people by crossing the red line.
President Obama has already shown Iran that he is willing to take military action against Syria without the approval of the UN Security Council, Great Britain, NATO, the Arab League and other representatives of the international community—as long as he has the approval of Congress. This is especially important with regard to Iran, because Congress is more likely to support military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program than is the international community.
There are dangers is drawing red lines too far in advance of them being crossed. A president who commits his nation to taking action if the line is crossed ties his hands, as the events in Syria demonstrate. But President Obama has already tied his hands on Iran—and properly so. He has made a commitment not only to the American people whose national security would be placed at risk by a nuclear armed Iran, but also to the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Israel, for whom a nuclear armed Iran poses an even greater threat. And Israel has acted—or forborne from acting—in reliance on that firm commitment. Now these American allies must be assured—and America’s enemies, especially Iran, must be warned—that President Obama is capable of keeping his promise, and that Congress won’t stop him from doing so.
Iran is different from Syria. America’s national interest would be directly weakened if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons. It has not been directly weakened by Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. The case for a red line against Iran is far stronger than it was for a red line against Syria.
Congress should first authorize the president to keep his commitment with regard to Syria. Then it should authorize the president to keep his far more important commitment with regard to the red line against Iran. This dual congressional action will strengthen America’s position in the world and will help to prevent the game-changing disaster of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author, most recently, of The Trials of Zion. His autobiography, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law”, will be published in October 2013.