It’s Time For Congress To Debate The Wisdom Of Attacking Syria

Some Members of Congress are calling for a debate before any strikes on Syria. They're absolutely right.

Capitol Buidling Dayime2

For the better part of what constituted the early morning and afternoon in Washington, D.C., the British Parliament met in London to engage in a multi-hour debate on how, if at all, the United Kingdom should respond to reports that Syrian government forced had used chemical weapons in an attack on August 21st. As is typically the case for Parliamentary debate, it was a raucous and contentious affair but it was also more substantive than anything you’re likely to see in the United States Congress any time soon. Most importantly, though, here was the elected leadership of one of America’s closest allies engaging in an open and public debate about the possibility of taking action that could end up involving their nation in a civil war that has raged on for two and a half years now with no signs that its going to abate. Given the fact that the United Nations weapons inspectors have not even completed their inspection yet, it’s likely not the final debate that Parliament will have on this topic before any action is taken, assuming that it is.

Things are far different on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, though. Congress is still in its August recess and not scheduled to even return to Washington for nearly two weeks. Neither the President nor the Congressional leadership of either party have shown any inclination to call for an early end to the recess so that our representatives can engage in a similar debate and, indeed, many members of Congress have said that there is no need for debate at all as long as the President “consults” with Congress, or to be more precise a few select members of Congress, before undertaking any aggressive military action on behalf of the United States. This really shouldn’t come as any surprise. President Obama failed to seek any kind of authorization from Congress before involving the nation in the Libyan Civil War two years ago, and with a few notable exceptions, most Members of Congress didn’t hold the Administration’s feet to the fire when they had the chance to do so. This time, though, there seems to be a larger segment of Congress calling on the President to seek Presidential approval before engaging in action:

More than 100 lawmakers, including 21 Democrats, have signed a letter that says President Obama would violate the Constitution by striking Syria without first getting authorization from Congress.

A total of 140 lawmakers had signed the letter as of Thursday, highlighting bipartisan interest and growing momentum in ensuring a role for Congress in any decision to use force in Syria. The letter has yet to be sent to the White House.

“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” states the letter, spearheaded by Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.).

“I’m grateful and encouraged by the strong, bipartisan support this letter has received,” Rigell said in a statement this evening. “It’s a clear indication that this issue is not personal to the president, but rather represents common ground in Congress and a deep respect for the Constitution.”

The Democrats who have signed the letter so far are Reps. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Rush Holt (N.J.), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Peter DeFazio (Ore.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), William Enyart (Ill.), Tim Walz (Minn.), Sam Farr (Calif.), Bruce Braley, (Iowa), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Michael Capuano (Mass.), Anna Eshoo (Calif.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Peter Welch (Vt.), Rick Nolan (Minn.), David Loebsack (Iowa), Jim Matheson (Utah), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Elizabeth Esty (Conn.), Daniel Lipinski, (Ill.) and Dan Maffei (N.Y.).

Current Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) is among the Republicans who has signed onto Rigell’s effort. However, his predecessor, former Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.), has repeatedly said on TV news programs that Obama does not need authorization from Congress to move forward.

Rigell has called on Obama to bring Congress back to Washington early to consider the authorization of military force against Syria.

“If you deem that military action in Syria is necessary, Congress can reconvene at your convenience,” the letter states.

Obviously, 140 Members of Congress out of a body that totals 535 people across both the House and the Senate is far from a majority, but it seems to be reflective of a high level of doubt in political circles in Washington, D.C. about the justification and basis for what the Obama Administration is apparently planning to do in Syria in response to the August 21st attack. Nobody seems to argue with the proposition that the President has the authority to act without Congressional authorization in a situation where there is a direct threat to the United States and immediate action is necessary, but that’s most certainly not the case here. Syria doesn’t pose an immediate threat of any kind to the United States, and it hasn’t attacked the United States. Moreover, unlike Libya this case doesn’t even offer the President the fig leaf of a United Nations mandate upon which he can justify his action. If he attacks Syria it will be purely an act of war based only on his own choice. Given that even our friends across the pond are engaging in an open and democratic debate about possible military action, it seems striking that here in the United States we have a President who, like many of his predecessors, believes that he can act without regard to popular will or the permission of Congress.

President Obama didn’t always feel this way, of course. Back when he was a candidate for President for the first time, when the Iraq War was still in the headlines, he took a much different position on the issue:

2. In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

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.

As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.” The recent NIE tells us that Iran in 2003 halted its effort to design a nuclear weapon. While this does not mean that Iran is no longer a threat to the United States or its allies, it does give us time to conduct aggressive and principled personal diplomacy aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

During a forum in 2007, President Obama also said that the American people have a right to know the basis for military action before it occurs, and Vice President Biden once even suggested that taking military action without Congressional approval could be grounds for impeachment.   One wonders what candidates Obama and Biden with think about the actions that President Obama and Vice-President Biden have taken, and what they are apparently planning to do in Syria, without Congressional approval.

There is no reason to rush the decision to attack Syria. As noted, that nation poses no imminent threat to us or our allies at this time, and it’s unlikely that they will any time in the near future. Additionally, given the fact that we’ve engaged in military action based on faulty intelligence in the past, it would seem essential that we be sure about the basis for any attack before actually engaging in one. Given all of that, and given that the British can apparently find the time to debate going to war in Syria before actually do so, the fact that our own Congress might not actually do so is really quite outrageous. So far, about 140 lawmakers are on board with the idea of returning from recess early to debate this important issue, but there’s really no reason why that number shouldn’t be 535, or why the President shouldn’t be calling Congress back into session and asking them to approve what he plans to do. If he fails to do so, then the consequences for those actions will be entirely on his shoulders, but it will be the nation as a whole that will end up paying the price.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Congress, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    There is no reason to rush the decision to attack Syria.

    Absolutely right.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    While I agree in principle, in practice it seems moderately obvious that any debate in Boehner’s House would turn into an anti-Obama clown carnival.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    I only wish that their motivation was proper oversight…and not just being reflexively Anti-Obama.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    And as I just typed in the SLT post re: Syria…I would really like the press to be doing their job as well as Congress. The 4th Estate has a mojor roll to play in our sytem…unfortunately today they are little more than stenographers typeing whatever their un-named sources tell them to type.

  5. OazrkHillbilly says:

    More than 100 lawmakers, including 21 Democrats, have signed a letter that says President Obama would violate the Constitution by striking Syria without first getting authorization from Congress.

    I would have a lot more faith in this movement if these people had half a clue as to what the Constitution says. Clue #1: The Constitution says the President is Commander in Chief. Clue #2: The War Powers Act says the President can do whatever he F’n wants for 60 days. I can not take these people serious. GOP or DEM, both are doing this for political reasons. Dems because there is a significant anti-war segment of the party (me included). GOPers because…. well… Obama… Blackity black…. etc.

    Call me when there is something more than a kabuki dance.

  6. Donald Sensing says:

    Well, this is the kind of partisan anti-Obama clown show that has already been sent to Obama, a letter that reads in part:

    Since there is no imminent threat to the United States, there is no legal justification for bypassing the Constitutionally-required Congressional authorization. “Consultation” with Congress is not sufficient. The Constitution requires Congressional authorization.

    Oh, wait, my bad. That was sent by the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. Sorry.

  7. Donald Sensing says:

    Anyone who doesn’t think the bombing should begin without Congressional approval just does not understand the fierce urgency of bombing now.

  8. Donald Sensing says:

    @OazrkHillbilly: Clue #1: The Constitution says the President is Commander in Chief. Clue #2: The War Powers Act says the President can do whatever he F’n wants for 60 days.

    And so you prove you do not know what “commander in chief” actually means, nor have you actually read the War Powers Act. Here is the link. Go and learn.

  9. mantis says:

    Agreed. We should encourage Congress to actually do its job. Boehner has already stated he has no intention to do so, so I won’t hold my breath.

    I do think, however, that the president is encouraging Congress to act by not calling on them to reconvene, considering that Republicans will oppose anything he proposes. If he made the call, they would make a point of not acceding.

  10. stonetools says:

    The President is making his decision. When he does, I expect him to lay it out in detail before the American people in a speech.
    Realistically, I don’t expect Congress to debate this because Congress is usually happy to leave the responsibility for these decisions solely up to the President-whatever the War Powers Act says. The politics of a decision to commit US armed forces haven’t changed.

  11. Raven says:

    Since when did modern Presidents ever follow the Constitution?

  12. edmondo says:

    Now that the British Parliament has shot down this “grand little war” the odds of Obama going to Congress are just about nil.

  13. OazrkHillbilly says:

    @Donald Sensing: And so you prove that you do not know that that CIC can command forces into WHATEVER situation arises without the approval of Congress. This was acknowledged by the War Powers Act, 1972 (’73 if I am wrong).

    Really, does your Constitution read different than mine

  14. michael reynolds says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    Yes, but can your party really afford to take time out from its 41st vote to repeal Obamacare? Do that and it will delay the 42nd vote, and the 43rd, and the 44th. How are they ever going to get to a hundred at that rate?

  15. OazrkHillbilly says:

    @Raven: Since when did Congress ever affirm their constitutional prerogatives?

    Yeah, about that long.

  16. OazrkHillbilly says:

    @Donald Sensing: Oh and Grenada. Panama. Etc.

  17. OazrkHillbilly says:

    @Donald Sensing: And by the way, why do pick fights with your allies? I am OPPOSED to this…. but because I point out that past opposition was purely partisan, you feel the need to attack me.

    OK. You are too stupid to realize that “the enemy of your enemy is your friend”.

  18. Donald Sensing says:

    OazrkHillbilly, I am supposed to support you just because we happen to be on the same side of this issue? Even though you are just plain historically, provably wrong in your claims? Seriously?

  19. Grewgills says:

    According to the War Powers Act:
    PURPOSE AND POLICY

    SEC. 2. (a) It is the purpose of this joint resolution to fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States and insure that the collective judgement of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and to the continued use of such forces in hostilities or in such situations.

    (b) Under article I, section 8, of the Constitution, it is specifically provided that the Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution, not only its own powers but also all other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

    (c) The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

    He must consult with a few in congress if he can, then basically gets a free pass for 60 days with only relatively minor reporting and consultation duties.
    I have to presume that he is relying on some sort of statutory authorization to give him his 60 days. I haven’t seen him attempt that yet, but maybe I have been looking in the wrong places.

  20. Grewgills says:

    According to the War Powers Act:

    PURPOSE AND POLICY

    SEC. 2. (a) It is the purpose of this joint resolution to fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States and insure that the collective judgement of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and to the continued use of such forces in hostilities or in such situations.

    (b) Under article I, section 8, of the Constitution, it is specifically provided that the Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution, not only its own powers but also all other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

    (c) The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

    He must consult with a few in congress if he can, then basically gets a free pass for 60 days with only relatively minor reporting and consultation duties.
    I have to presume that he is relying on some sort of statutory authorization to give him his 60 days. I haven’t seen him attempt that yet, but maybe I have been looking in the wrong places.

  21. dazedandconfused says:

    Watching some of the denizens of the House debate Syria would be entertaining, but nothing like the the Senate.

    Rand Paul v. John McCain…in a phone booth…armed with slingshots!

  22. Rob in CT says:

    Given that Parliament just smacked Cameron down, removing a significant player from the would-be coalition of the willing, there is all the more reason to step up the pressure to get Congress off its collected rear end and try to block this.

    Those of you who are against bombing Syria: contact your representatives! Do it. It takes 30 seconds.

  23. grumpy realist says:

    I still see bar fight…. I can’t believe that Obama would fall victim to the “gee, we don’t know what to do, so let’s go bomb something” reaction. His raising it as a flag in order to get the opposition lobbing peanuts at him (and each other) is a more likely strategy.

    If we plays his cards right, he’ll be able to get the isolationist and neo-con wings of the Republican party to tear each other to shreds.

    The one wild card in all of this, of course, is Israel…..Haaretz calling for an assassination attempt on Assad (one of the most mind-boggingly stupid things I’ve seen in that magazine.) I really do hope we’re not getting dragged into this because of AIPAC.

    P.S. I note the Financial Times has backed off slightly from its “We must do SOMETHING!” stance to a more questioning “what in the heck would an attack on Syria accomplish?” Strange when British newspapers are more hawkish than the WSJ (which, aside from the obligatory op-ed from one of their resident neocons, has remained remarkably silent on the matter.)

  24. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: The Financial Times has this as well:

    The west is playing in to Moscow’s hands on Syria

    Every now and then one of my English-speaking colleagues asks me what Russia will do if the western powers make good on their threats and strike at Syria. My answer is: nothing. Russia does not have to do anything, it can just sit quiet. The situation is advantageous to Moscow. Our leaders will be only too happy to see the US start a new war it cannot win.

  25. al-Ameda says:

    @mantis:

    Agreed. We should encourage Congress to actually do its job. Boehner has already stated he has no intention to do so, so I won’t hold my breath.

    I believe we should ask Congress to debate this, let’s be honest for a change, let’s put people on the record here.

  26. Scott says:

    @grumpy realist: Another angle to explore is this: Are the Israeli hawks trying to drag us into a confrontation with Iran?

  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Scott: Even though I could see Israel loving it if we got into a brawl with Iran, I can’t see how a war with Syria will accomplish that. Wouldn’t it be just as likely that the US would say (after bombing Syria to smithereens) “Ok, we got rid of this problem for you–you clean up the rest of your nasty little problems.) Especially if (as is also possible) we get dragged into a Vietnam-like mess in Syria. I can see the U.S. turning very hard against any further involvement with anything in the Mideast, no matter how much Israel tugs on our sleeve.

    Personally, I think we either get out of the Mideast altogether and leave them to sort out their own problems, or arrange for an extremely high fence around all of them. Or both. Anything else is nuts.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    Personally, I think we either get out of the Mideast altogether and leave them to sort out their own problems…

    That, of course, will never happen as long as the Middle East contains oil and Israel…