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: Truthout.org