Foreign Policy magazine has an interview up with Bruce Ackerman about congressional ability to check the president’s war powers. It mostly focuses on what can and cannot be done vis-a-vis Iraq (as I’ve been saying, it comes down to the budget requests) but also gets into Iran. Ackerman says the president can’t so much as bomb Iran without congressional authorization. I’d like to believe that’s true, and it seems consonant with a straightforward reading of the “declare war” clause of the constitution. That said, we all know that declaring war business has been a dead letter for some time. I also seem to recall that Bill Clinton ordered airstrikes against Serbia without congressional authorization.
Ultimately, the question is less whether or not the president is “allowed” to order attacks on Iran than what happens if he does order such attacks. Say Israel bombs Natanz and Bush supports the Israelis diplomatically and warns Iran against retaliating. Then in Iraq there’s some dramatic attack against US forces. In response, the President proclaims that the attacks were organized by Iran and orders, without first asking congress, a retaliatory bombing of Revolutionary Guard facilities. The military is going to obey that order, right? And congress isn’t going to impeach and convict Bush, thus removing him from office, replacing him with Dick Cheney, right? In practice, I don’t see much restraint on the president’s war-initiating authority at all. Congressional control over the purse-strings can effect the course of a conflict once initiated, but the only thing to stop the president from ordering some country bombed would be a military coup.
What’s more, it’s worth saying that my guess is that if a war with Iran began the way I outline in this post that it would initially have considerable popular support. Not from me. But in the press it will be presented as Bush responding to a clear act of Iranian aggression and most people will buy it.