The President’s Third and Long on Syria

Posted on September 6, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

By James Scott

When it was time to punish Syria for using chemical weapons on its own civilians, the White House punted.

The question highlighted anew the oft-visited debate about when Congress should be asked its imprimatur ahead of military action. President Obama said he felt he had the authority to launch the attack on his own, but decided to seek the blessing of Congress nonetheless.

Last week, some House Republicans, mostly those of little seniority, cried out for an early end to Congress’s August recess to all a vote on launching an offensive in Syria. A few first term senators joined the chorus. And they got their way.

It’s not like the president was keeping lawmakers of either party in the dark during the run up to attacks against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Obama spoke by phone at least once with House Speaker John Boehner, (R-Ohio) and White House staff briefed members of the relevant committees.

Some voices on the right had complained that an attack on Syria would violate the War Powers Clause of the Constitution, which requires congressional approval before the United States goes to war. The question, though, is what is a war? The Congress has not declared war since World War II, the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq must have been something less than wars.(Iran?  Bush1?)

Something like a measured attack on Syria is hardly in the same league. This seems clearly to fit within the intent of War Powers Act of 1973, which gives the administration the authority to conduct military activities for 60 days without first seeking a declaration of war from Congress.

Still, Obama’s opponents dug up some powerful ammunition in the form of a statement the president made when he was a senator criticizing President George W. Bush for not seeking renewed authorization for the war in Iraq. “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” Obama said.

And he doubled down on the statement later, as a candidate for president in 2008.

By 2011, when Obama wanted to launch U.S. military action in Libya, he has changed his tune completely. Rather than seeking approval, Obama informed Congress by letter that he was invoking the 60-day clause of the war power act. When the 60-days expired, he informed them that since the U.S. participation was in a support role he didn’t need their approval.

There is no doubt that the president has the power to launch measured attacks when they are deemed to be in U.S. national security interests. He can even commit the country to war without first gaining congressional approval when the U.S. is attacked or during national emergencies.

The White House has been doing a good job of keeping congressional leaders informed, as it should. Seeking congressional approval, however, opens the debate up to all kinds of political posturing and gamesmanship. And it provides Obama with political cover, should the attack have unforeseen consequences.

The Syria situation is a no-win proposition for the United States. Do we help topple the Syrian regime and hand the country and all its weapons over to an opposition that is dominated by terrorists? Or do we help sustain the blood-soaked regimes of Assad and allow the people of Syria to continue to suffer?

Getting the Congress involved is the right move, even if when designed for political motives.


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