On August 31, 2013, President Obama came before the American people via national television and said he was ready to order military action against Syria as a result of the use of chemical weapons against civilians. He then surprised virtually everyone by saying he believed our country is stronger when we act in unity and declared he would seek a vote from Congress approving the military action against Syria. Whatever else this chain of events revealed it showed President Obama to be a person with political courage.
Shortly after President Obama’s revelation, Senators McCain and Graham issued a joint statement that said in part: “We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the president’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests.” Senator McCain remarked, “The president apparently wants to have a kind of a cosmetic strike, launch a few missiles and then say ‘Well, we responded.’ This is the same president that, two years ago, said Bashar Assad had to go. “It’s also the president that said that there would be a red line if they used chemical weapons, maybe that red line was written in disappearing ink.”
So at least two Senators want a larger and more extensive military operation than the president had thus far described. This larger response is precisely what the president has consistently not argued for. He has specifically stated that whatever we do will not entail “boots on the ground” and has disavowed ambitions for “regime change.” In the debate in Congress, some principled people will have to emerge to challenge Senators McCain and Graham and any others who seek wider violence.
Peter King, a New York Republican and a member of the House’s intelligence committee, alleged the president was undermining the authority of future presidents and seeking a political shield for himself by going through Congress. King said, “The president doesn’t need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line.” Representative King exemplifies another form of resistance and criticism the president must overcome. Some critics in the vein of Representative King say the longer Obama waits, the less effect the missiles may have in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again, or in convincing America’s allies in Israel and its adversaries in Iran that Obama will live up to his vow to take swift military action, if necessary, to deny Tehran a nuclear weapon. “All of this dithering is very counterproductive,” said Barry Pavel, a former Defense Department official who is vice president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “And if it looks like he’s just checking the box, it gets much worse.”
It will be remarkable if the rabidly partisan Republicans do not seek to use the debate over action against Syria as yet another context to smear and ridicule the president. They would perpetrate a stunning surprise if they rose above their reflexive negativism and put more emphasis on the weighty issue of committing American armed forces to a hostile fire situation than they placed on scoring partisan points. This decision is a challenge to the credibility of the Congress because what is at stake is not simply political advantage. In order to meet this challenge, Congress [and particularly Republicans in both chambers] will have to do what it has only rarely done since 2009. Congress will have to engage in responsible governance.
This dysfunctionality on the part of Congress is a major reason why President Obama’s decision to seek approval from Congress is so courageous. The Constitutional authority to order military action in this case was by no means unarguably on the president’s side. Although the use of chemical weapons is heinous, what happened in Syria was demonstrably not an “attack on the United States, its territories or its possessions, or its armed forces.” Therefore, the chemical weapons atrocity does not constitute an emergency under the War Powers Resolution of 1973. By challenging Congress to do its part, President Obama showed he cared more about allegiance to the Constitution than he did about conserving presidential authority. Every American should applaud him for that choice.
One final consideration is in order. Since World War I, civilized nations have rightly viewed chemical weapons as particularly abhorrent. While it is true that conventional weapons cause death and injuries, they are not clearly beyond the pale in armed conflicts. If the civilized nations, including the United States, do nothing to rebuke Syria for violating the long established taboo against chemical weapons, other states or movements might be emboldened, and they may take actions with enormous and tragic consequences. This means the need for action regarding Syria would be pressing even if Obama had never described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” This crisis is not about saving face; it is about responding to monstrous actions while upholding our Constitutional principles and ideals.
President Obama taught constitutional law before he became a full-time politician. By showing restraint and involving Congress in this complex matter, he proved that he had learned some valuable lessons during his professorial career. Now we the people must do our part and powerfully convey to our senators and representatives that they must be diligent, rational, and responsible in their deliberations. Any commitment of American armed forces should be made only when it can be effective and when it is authentically justified by the circumstances at hand. Now the Obama administration must fully and candidly inform Congress of the case for military action at this time. The members of Congress in turn must listen carefully, ponder honestly, and decide responsibly. If both participants can do their part honorably, the decision will be one worthy of the confidence of the American people.
President Obama told the nation Saturday. “Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.” This revealed the president’s wisdom as well as his courage. What would it profit America if we save the day in Syria while trashing our constitutional republic to do it? It would avail us nothing. We have kept the republic for nearly 225 years. None of us should take lightly the risks of losing it now amidst a rancorous political climate characterized by obstructionism of historic proportions. The president has given Congress a challenge and a chance; he has given us one as well.
Let’s get to work!