John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Asking for Permission

Posted on September 2, 2013

In matters of foreign policy, tis far better for Presidents to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

If a President takes bold and decisive action, the Congress will usually follow along.

If a President dithers and negotiates and asks the opinions of scores of lawmakers, all of whom have different constituencies and vested interests, the result is usually a mess.

Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory, amid murky Constitutional concerns. Congress didn’t blink, because it was such a damn good deal.

President Reagan sent a few missiles into Libya to send a message to Muammar Khadafy. While a few members of Congress may have complained, most saw it as a justified strike.

Reagan didn’t ask for Congressional permission.

To get the Congress to okay war (or something like it) a President either has to have history on his side or he has to make it up.

Roosevelt had Pearl Harbor and Bush had 9/11. Johnson had to manufacture the Gulf of Tonkin, and William Randolph Hearst had to convince the American people to remember the Maine.

Bill Clinton bombed the Serbians, and it was a common perception that he did that to influence the Congressional debate on impeachment. Trent Lott accused him of that very thing, and there was a Hollywood movie that called “Wag the Dog”, based loosely on Mr. Clinton’s action.

Eventually, Congress, well after the fact, voted on giving the President permission to launch surgical strikes in Kosovo. The Senate assented, but the House (early in my old boss’s tenure as Speaker), failed to pass the resolution.

The vote was 213-213, with Majority Whip Tom Delay working hard to screw the President. DeLay hated Clinton and his dislike for the President manifested itself in having him whip against the resolution. Speaker Hastert has no great love for Clinton himself, nor giving him the authority to continue to bomb in the Balkans, but he also understood that both American and Congressional prestige were on the line.

That being said, the Speaker didn’t whip his members for it, basically allowing the House to work its will. And the House did work its will, recording its ambivalence into the history books.

It didn’t matter, chiefly because the President didn’t ask for permission. He didn’t really even ask for forgiveness. What was done was done and with the Senate giving its support, impeaching Clinton was not really ever an option (the House having gone down that road only shortly before and failing and, embarrassing itself in the process).

Several members of both chambers asked Mr. Obama to ask for permission in Syria. I bet you they were pretty surprised when the President agreed to go down that path.

Mr. Obama didn’t have much of choice once the British parliament rejected David Cameron’s efforts to support the American President in this endeavor. How bad would it look to have a monarchy look more democratic than history's greatest democracy?

The President should have launched the missiles immediately after discovering that Syria used chemical weapons. That would have sent a certain message to the world that he meant business when he drew lines in the sand.

But Mr. Obama, given how he campaigned against George Bush for being an out-of-control cowboy who didn’t build the proper consensus with the international community before attacking Iraq, couldn’t just start bombing Damascus without building the proper consensus with the international community (which will never happen, by the way). Well, he could have, but he decided that he didn’t want to be that kind of leader.

Mr. Obama leads from behind. He is the ultimate passive-aggressive. He tells you what he would do, if only the Congress would give him the proper permission. It is really annoying.

And in doing so, he shows his own ambivalence towards leadership. Being a leader is sometimes saying that you are sorry after you have led forcefully. Asking for forgiveness is basically making the gamble that you are doing the right thing, if not exactly by doing it the right way. You are betting that history will vindicate you.

My guess is that the Senate gives the President the permission to strike while the House tells him to focus on repealing Obamcare.

And then he will have to make a decision. Ignore the House and strike Syria or ignore the Senate and look like the weakest American leader since Woodrow Wilson at the conclusion of the Great War.

When you ask for permission from the Congress, sometimes you are confronted with some really bad choices.