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Time to Authorize Use of Force Against Iran

12:00 AM, Aug 21, 2012 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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More persuasive than the Ross or Yadlin proposals would be an effort by the president to seek a formal authorization for the use of force from Congress. This is the way for him to show seriousness of purpose, and for Congress to support it—and send an unmistakable message to the ayatollahs. This path was suggested here in THE WEEKLY STANDARD early July, by Jamie Fly and Bill Kristol, and this is the moment to move forward with it. Like the joint resolutions for the Gulf Wars in 1991 and in 2002 and the joint resolution passed after 9/11 regarding terrorism, a new resolution would not declare war; it would say “The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” to achieve the goal. In this case, that goal would not be to counter “the continuing threat posed by Iraq” or “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001…in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” It would be to prevent Iran—the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, in violation of countless U.N. Security Council and IAEA board of governors resolutions, and under international sanctions—from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Such a proposal by President Obama would be controversial, and many Democrats would vote against him. (There is precedent for this: In the 1991 Gulf resolution, 45 Democrats in the Senate voted against the resolution and only 10 voted for it, and it passed only 52-47; in the House 86 Democrats voted yes and 179 voted no.) But it would, in the phrase Mr. Obama likes to use, be a teachable moment. First, the very presentation of such a resolution by the White House would show a new level of clarity and commitment. This would be likely to affect both Iranian and Israeli calculations far more than statements like “all options are on the table.”

Second, should such a resolution fail, everyone would be clear that the United States was not going to act and that Israel need delay no longer so as to leave it to us. Third, a clear statement from the president that he intended to use military force if necessary would almost certainly be backed by the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, producing rare election year unanimity on a national security issue. That too would likely change Israeli and Iranian views of the chances the Americans would act. Fourth, seeking such a Joint Resolution now would be a useful acknowledgement by the United States that we do not have perfect knowledge of when, as Iran advances toward a bomb, a military strike might be needed—so we will start getting ready now.

Those who believe that a negotiated deal with Iran is still theoretically possible should welcome this congressional expression of intent. The Iranian regime still believes it can get nuclear weapons and is not negotiating in good faith. Only if it is persuaded that it will never get those weapons—that the choice is between a negotiated agreement and an American military strike—is a deal possible. Similarly, those who oppose an Israeli strike must realize that the best way to avoid it is to persuade Israelis that by deferring their own action they are not accepting an Iranian bomb but accepting that the world’s most powerful nation will deal more effectively with Iran than they will.

Proposing an authorization to use force does not lock Mr. Obama into using force, much less doing so at a specific time. He can use the authorization as a club to beat Iran into a negotiated deal. Therein lies one great appeal of this tack, but also one great trap—for Israel and for those in the United States who believe that Iran must at all costs be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. The risk is that the Obama administration will instead sign a bad deal and call it victory. There is probably no way to avoid this possibility, which exists today as well, but there is one good way to diminish it. Congress could adopt, separately or as part of the “Use of Force” resolution, certain standards. A June 15 letter to the president from 44 senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, suggests what those standards might be. The joint resolution could say that force is authorized to prevent an Iranian bomb, acknowledge that a negotiated outcome is far more desirable, and then state that any acceptable negotiated deal must require immediate closing the underground facility at Fordow, freezing of all enrichment above five percent and exporting of all of Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched above that level, and imposing intrusive inspections to ensure that the program is not secretly reestablished.

There are few legislative days left in 2012 because this is an election year, but there are enough to debate and pass this joint resolution if it is given its proper priority. Congress needs to act on the farm bill and the federal budget before adjourning, but it is quite likely in both cases that three or six month extensions will kick those balls down the road to a lame duck session or into the new Congress next year. The Iranian nuclear program, by contrast, must be addressed right now—or Israel is quite likely to strike while it still can.

In any event, the debate over a joint resolution will clarify who stands where. At the moment, no one is persuaded that the United States will use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That situation worries Israelis and emboldens Iranians, not the outcome we want. A clear statement now that is backed by the nominees of both parties and elicits widespread support in Congress would demonstrate that, whatever the election results, American policy is set. That is the best (and may be the only) way to avoid an Israeli strike in the near future and the best (and may be the only) way to persuade Iran to negotiate seriously. And if we are unwilling as a nation to state that we will act to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, that conclusion should solidify support for what would then become the inevitable Israeli strike. A refusal by the White House to seek such a joint resolution would itself suggest that, while “all options are on the table,” the likelihood is that that is precisely where they will remain.

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