In the past week and-a-half President Obama has regularly emphasized the importance of having Congress weigh in on whether to launch a strike against Syria. In his interview with PBS NewsHour co-host Gwen Ifill, Obama said that in cases involving chemical weapons and terrorists operating in certain areas, he has sought “a clearer conversation about what we’re willing to do is the right thing to do.”
It is hard to imagine a sharper contrast between Obama’s approach on Syria and the one George W. Bush outlined in a signing statement a decade ago, when he signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 on Dec. 12. Bush repeatedly used signing statements as levers to enhance his executive authority, and the Syria Accountability Act provides a vivid illustration of how closely he guarded the right to set U.S. foreign policy on his own terms.
The measure aimed to combat Syria’s support for terrorism by imposing sanctions, but Bush made it clear he would pursue whatever policy he saw fit.
Noting that one section requires the president “to take certain actions against Syria unless the President either determines and certifies to the Congress that the Government of Syria has taken specific actions,” the statement continues, “A law cannot burden or infringe the President's exercise of a core constitutional power by attaching conditions precedent to the use of that power.”
And if that isn’t clear enough, Bush -- who on occasion sought to establish legal precedents through signing statements -- also declared that he could waive the law’s reporting requirements that the president "furnish information to the Congress on various subjects involving Syria and terrorism” if he and his deputies determined that was the right thing to do.
“The executive branch shall construe section 6 in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authority to withhold information the disclosure of which could impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative processes of the Executive, or the performance of the Executive's constitutional duties,” it reads.
And while the measure included several foreign policy statements, Bush clarified that none of them actually constituted official U.S. policy: “Given the Constitution's commitment to the Presidency of the authority to conduct the Nation's foreign affairs, the executive branch shall construe such policy statements as advisory, giving them the due weight that comity between the legislative and executive branches should require, to the extent consistent with U.S. foreign policy.”
Facing a different set of circumstances in the Middle East, Obama has pursued a radically different path. How it will play out on Capitol Hill, however, remains a work in progress.
Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.