Restoring Congress’ Role In Making War

by Robert E. Hunter

Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.

I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress….this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they’ve agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.

–President Barack Obama, August 31, 2013

President Barack Obama’s announcement this weekend that he has “decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets” is remarkable for many reasons, in particular because he coupled it with a commitment to “seek authorization for the use of force from…Congress.”

The first remarkable element is that he has already taken the decision to strike before fully engaging Congress, instead of the usual practice of reserving judgment on possible military action until that process is complete. This immediately begs the question “What if Congress balks?” Does the president go ahead anyway? And if Congress turns him down — after all, he is not “consulting” but “seek[ing] authorization” — does that affect his (and America’s) credibility, as the author of the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government? Proponents of a military strike are already making that point, although, in this writer’ judgment, it is grossly overdrawn, and no one who wishes us ill should put much weight on this proposition.

The best counterargument is that, at a time when the UN and others are still assembling evidence on the use of chemical weapons (undeniable) and “who did it” (probably the Syrian government), waiting awhile is not a bad thing. Obama covered the point about risk of delay by citing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “…that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.” Taking the  time “to be sure” is thus useful; as is the value in trying to build support in Congress, especially given the clarity of memory about the process leading up to the US-led invasion of Iraq a decade ago, when the intelligence “books” were “cooked” by Bush administration officials, as well as by the British government.

The second remarkable element is that the president did not ask Congress to reconvene in Washington in the next day or two, but is content to wait until members return on September 9th. This provides time for the administration to build its case on Capitol Hill, supporting a decision the president says he has already taken; but it also risks diminishing the perceived sense of importance that his team, notably Secretary of State John Kerry, here and here, has been building about the enormity of what has been done.

A related factor is that the United States will not be responding to a direct assault on the United States or its people abroad, civilian or military, and the case for America’s taking the lead is less about our interests than what, at other times, has been called America’s role as the “indispensable nation.” As has been made clear by all and sundry, if the US does not act, no one else will shoulder the responsibility. But this lack of a direct threat to the nation heightens the president’s need to make his case that the US must take the lead.

The need to make the case to Congress was hammered home by the British parliament’s rejection of a UK role in any attack on Syria, despite the lead taken by Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary William Hague in pressing for military action — and thus helping to “box in” the US president. No doubt, what Parliament did influenced Obama’s decision to get the US Congress firmly on record in supporting his decision to act.

A third remarkable element, though not surprising, is that the administration has apparently given up on the United Nations. To be sure, Russia and China would veto in the Security Council any resolution calling for force; but it would have been common practice — and may yet be done — for the US to apply to the recognized court of world opinion by at least trying, loud and long, to establish an international legal basis for military action, even it fails to achieve UN agreement. There is precedent for this approach, notably over Kosovo in 1998, where the UN failed to act (threat of vetoes), but the US at least made a “college try” and demonstrated the point it sought to make. This made it easier for individual NATO allies to adopt the fudge that each member state could decide for itself the legal basis on which it was prepared to act.

But the most remarkable element of the President’s statement is the likely precedent he is setting in terms of engaging Congress in decisions about the use of force, not just through “consultations,” but in formal authorization. This gets into complex constitutional and legal territory, and will lead many in Congress (and elsewhere) to expect Obama — and his successors — to show such deference to Congress in the future, as, indeed, many members of Congress regularly demand.

But seeking authorization for the use of force from Congress as opposed to conducting consultations has long since become the exception rather than the rule. The last formal congressional declarations of war, called for by Article One of the Constitution, were against Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary on June 4, 1942. Since then, even when Congress has been engaged, it has either been through non-binding resolutions or under the provisions of the War Powers Resolution of November 1973. That congressional effort to regain some lost ground in decisions to send US forces into harm’s way was largely a response to administration actions in the Vietnam War, especially the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 1964, which was actually prepared in draft before the triggering incident. The War Powers Resolution does not prevent a president from using force on his own authority, but only imposes post facto requirements for gaining congressional approval or ending US military action. In the current circumstances, military strikes of a few days’ duration, those provisions would almost certainly not come into play.

There were two basic reasons for abandoning the constitutional provision of a formal declaration of war. One was that such a declaration, once turned on, would be hard to turn off, and could lead to a demand for unconditional surrender (as with Germany and Japan in World War II), even when that would not be in the nation’s interests — notably in the Korean War. The more compelling reason for ignoring this requirement was the felt need, during the Cold War, for the president to be able to respond almost instantly to a nuclear attack on the United States or on very short order to a conventional military attack on US and allied forces in Europe.

With the Cold War now on “the ash heap of history,” this second argument should long since have fallen by the wayside, but it has not.  Presidents are generally considered to have the power to commit US military forces, subject to the provisions of the War Powers Resolution, which have never been properly tested. But why? Even with the 9/11 attacks on the US homeland, the US did not respond immediately, but took time to build the necessary force and plans to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (and, anyway, if President George W. Bush had asked on 9/12 for a declaration of war, he no doubt would have received it from Congress, very likely unanimously).

As times goes by, therefore, what President Obama said on August 29, 2013 could well be remembered less for what it will mean regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria and more for what it implies for the reestablishment of a process of full deliberation and fully-shared responsibilities with the Congress for decisions of war-peace, as was the historic practice until 1950. This proposition will be much debated, as it should be; but if the president’s declaration does become precedent (as, in this author’s judgment, it should be, except in exceptional circumstances where a prompt military response is indeed in the national interest), he will have done an important and lasting service to the nation, including a potentially significant step in reducing the excessive militarization of US foreign policy.

There would be one added benefit: members of Congress, most of whom know little about the outside world and have not for decades had to take seriously their constitutional responsibilities for declaring war, would be required to become better-informed participants in some of the most consequential decisions the nation has to take, which, not incidentally, also involve risks to the lives of America’s fighting men and women.

Photo Credit:

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. “O”‘s second decision: “I will seek authorization from the peoples representatives. . . . . “. How long has it been since the “peoples representatives” have represented the “people”, all of the people, not just the special interests and kowtowing to the Israeli interests who hand out the money, which seems to be like handing out “crack” to “crack addicts”? But there’s always strings attached, which leaves the “people” holding the bag, paying the costs, over and over again. Perhaps if the Congress-the peoples representatives-understood that they could be branded a “war criminal” and could be brought up for being so, then . . . . . . . . . . . , but that would require adhering to the “Law”, which has been shoved into the background by this “administration”, as well as the acquiescence from the “peoples representatives”. It looks like the “O” is dancing with the “Devil”, but as usual, it will be the “people” who will bear the costs that are incurred.

  2. Ambassador Hunter, with all due respect, in passing ever more punitive sanctions, has Congress informed itself about Iran and the nuclear issues? I rather think not. Has Congress shown reluctance in the past to take action against Syria and Assad? Again, with all due respect, I would suggest that hitting the Syrian government hard has been the agenda of many of our legislators, not because the American people want it, but because the special interests who control them do- e.g., the Israeli, Saudi and Turkish lobbies, the military and national security contractors, the energy and mining companies, and the banks that finance them.

    Instead, I rather think Congress will debate the efficacy of the operation and then sign on to the nefarious enterprise to allow the President and his Secretary to save face for their diplomatic (if we can call them that) missteps. Yet, no one to date has questioned the Administration about its own responsibility for this war in Syria, or for the 100,000+ deaths (including the 30,000+ of Syrian soldiers killed defending their country). We conceived this war many years ago, and then planned and initiated it with a parallel propaganda war run through the media beginning in 2011. Our Ambassador, Robert Ford, organized and/or encouraged protests and demonstrations, and is said to have managed a reign of urban terror resulting in such massacres as occurred in Hama, Homs and Houlas, similar to what he and John Negroponte perpetrated in Baghdad in 2004-2005. We funded, supplied, armed, and coordinated out of NATO bases in Turkey, this war, both directly and through our Turkish, Saudi, Qatari and Israeli proxies, and in doing so committed innumerable acts of war which were violations of the UN Charter, Nuremberg Tribunals, and/or the Geneva and Hague Conventions. We have done this shamelessly while pretending it was all the fault of Assad. Since then we have obstructed all efforts at peace, when we could have, and still can, put a stop to it instead of perpetuating it.

    Now, the President and his Secretary of State claim Assad gassed his own people and have based it on “intelligence” received from the Mossad and other “evidence” that he has shared in classified form with Congress in closed session but not with the UN inspectors or the American people. The Administration and its sponsors are desperate to dismember Syria, bring down Iran and prevent any possibility of an energy pipeline from Iran that could bring peace and economic development to the region. Why? Because it would change the economic and geopolitical dynamic between Europe and Iran? Or create economic competition with the Israelis and their plan to sell to Europe the natural gas they are extracting from the Eastern Mediterranean? Or expand Iranian influence at the expense of Saudi Arabia or Qatar? We cannot survive let alone create a world of peace and prosperity if we keep fighting endless wars. So, really it is up to Congress not only to debate this limited issue but also the larger issues which are implicated by this war and our policy of war.

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