Getting a second opinion or getting a permission slip: Obama and military action abroad

Getting a second opinion or getting a permission slip: Obama and military action abroad

Secretary of Defense Panetta is taking flack from Andrew McCarthy for his response to Senator Graham about the conditions under which the Obama administration would use military force. Graham was trying to pin Panetta down as to whether the Obama administration considers international authorization from the U.N. or other multilateral institution to be necessary — and, in particular, whether similar authorization from Congress is not necessary.

Concerns about a hypothetical use of military force in Syria motivated the question, but it was the anything-but-hypothetical experience of Libya that framed it. In the Libyan operation, the Obama administration clearly demonstrated that they would not intervene militarily until they received the international cover of authorization from some combination of the U.N., NATO, and the Arab League. However, the Obama administration just as clearly demonstrated that they were willing to act without similar authorization from Congress. To many in Congress, this seemed to privilege international institutions above the U.S. Constitution and the constitutional role for Congress.

McCarthy does a good job of clearing the uncontroversial underbrush away from the controversial heart of the matter. Panetta tried to deflect the tough questions by answering easy ones, repeatedly reemphasizing two uncontroversial claims: (a) in an emergency the president has the authority to act without any further authorization and (2) whenever the U.S. acts militarily, it is better to have multilateral support for the effort. Panetta did not say, but could have, that getting such support from our allies usually requires the authorization of at least NATO and, usually, a U.N. Security Council Resolution; even if the United States did not require it, our allies would require it, so if we want the allies we have to work through those multilateral institutions.

But in his response, Panetta gave the impression that the Obama administration views such international legitimation as legally necessary (when not responding to a direct threat against the United States) yet does not view congressional authorization as legally necessary. As McCarthy points out, that legal position is a tough one to sell in today’s environment.

I am a political scientist, not a lawyer, so I find the politics of the issue especially interesting.  And this happens to be a topic I have done scholarly work on with some Duke colleagues. We found that getting international legitimation through a multilateral institution before resorting to military force really does boost public support for military action. The survey evidence seems to support a common-sense intuition: In the hypothetical, the public is not sure whether the president is right to want to use force and would like a second opinion from someone else who presumably has relevant expertise but a different set of incentives. In other words, the public seems to act much the way it might act when a doctor recommends an expensive and risky medical treatment: Maybe, but let’s get a second opinion. Other factors might be in play — the public might want some burden-sharing or might adopt the legalistic view that force is not legitimate without international authorization — but the "second opinion" factor seems the most important. Respondents who had reason to distrust the president (either because of partisan differences or because they indicated low overall confidence in the president), were more affected by the second opinion of an international endorsement than were those who indicated a reason to trust the president.

Politically, the acid test is what the public wants the president to do when he tries but fails to get U.N. approval.  Something like this happened in Iraq in 2002-2003, although the Bush administration claimed that they did secure sufficient U.N. authorization with the first UNSCR, even though they were unable to get the second. This indubitably happened in Kosovo in 1999 when Russia blocked U.N. authorization. And it may well be happening right now in Syria, given Russia and China’s intransigence. This is a tricky thing to measure and my colleagues and I felt that previous studies had not measured it precisely because other analysts had failed to separate three logically distinct but interrelated attitudes: views on the wisdom of using military force regardless of authorization; views on the wisdom of going to the U.N. for authorization; and the attitude of greatest interest to us, views on what to do when a desired authorization is not forthcoming.  

My colleagues and I asked about just such a scenario (albeit back in 2004) and found that 10 percent of respondents said they opposed military action, period, regardless of whether the president got international approval. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 5 percent of the respondents said they opposed the president seeking international authorization.  The remaining group was split evenly between those who wanted to hold off military action until U.N. authorization was secured and those that said the president should proceed and act without U.N. authorization.  There was a pronounced partisan split, with Republicans recommending action despite a failure to get U.N. authorization and Democrats recommending delay; Independents were fairly evenly divided but tilted slightly in the delay direction.  

We did not test the Congress vs. U.N. question underlying Senator Graham’s grilling of Secretary Panetta. And perhaps the partisan splits would be different now that a Democratic president is in charge. But this work leads me to expect that segments of the public who distrust this president will want to see his policies get independent endorsements. And the segments of the public who distrust this president are likely not to privilege the U.N. above the U.S. Congress.

So what is the bottom line? The public is likely divided. Faced with a divided public, presidents can revert to the status quo and do nothing or they can lead, seeking to persuade the public to see it their way. Bush tried very hard to persuade a divided public, with mixed results. From the start, I have not been very impressed with Obama’s efforts to mobilize the public on war matters, but he sometimes has done better than other times. It seems to me, the present array of challenges requires his best effort.