Is Authority Permission?

I got into a debate Friday night with some friends who challenged me to explain the difference between giving someone the authority to act and giving them permission. "If they have authority," one of my friends said, "then they also have permission." I was not of that opinion, and said so.

Of course, our discussion was triggered by what at that time appeared to be President Obama's willingness to strike Syria absent any international coalition or partnership, or, for that matter, the approval of Congress, the feedback loop of America's vox populi. Another friend in the debate, upset by the deaths of so many men, women, and children in a chemical weapons attack in Damascus, was not one to quibble over semantics -- she wanted retaliatory action, and she wanted it now. We had all watched Secretary of State Kerry's speech, and we had seen the videos of the devastation visited upon the Syrian victims.

Frankly, I want action too -- preferably hard punishment involving a red-hot poker -- but there are so many downsides to such a decision that any upside to avenging that terrible slaughter militarily is very problematic and freighted with unintended consequences. I don't want those missiles launched until the president has something resembling other-than-Pentagon permission behind him (and by some accounts, there is not unanimous support among the military leadership either).

By a limited definition of Article II, the president can act on the spot in an emergency to protect American interests. That authority is still not, in my opinion, a blanket permission to act unilaterally in Syria absent a coherent, viable, and long-term strategy to end Assad's rule. The president's decision must go beyond sending a Tomahawk message to Assad. What the Syrian dictator allegedly did was heinous and criminal; there needs to be an end-game strategy to guarantee his ouster. I believe those 1,400 deaths must be paid for, and I'm sure the U.S. is the only nation capable of forcing Assad to pay.

But I don't believe that the president's sending a warning shot across Assad's bow, or diminishing Assad's chemical weapons delivery capabilities by a series of surgical strikes equates to a long-term, sustainable strategy in anybody's interest. My friends insist President Obama has the authority to do that, without asking anybody's permission. In response, I said, that by definition, permission presumes at least one other party be involved in the exercise of the authority -- preferably contemporaneously and not from the 18th century. If all we are doing is suggesting that the authority ambiguously worded in the Constitution gives any president permission to act unilaterally, then we are presuming that the Constitution's framers and amenders had 21st century vision.

I don't care if the second party is the Congress, the electorate, the UN, or a coalition of allies. But a unilateral decision based only on Constitutional authority is not green-light permission.

On Saturday, Mr. Obama chose power by permission: "Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets... I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress."

The devil is now in the details of the upcoming Congressional debate. But that's another column.