Up until a few days ago I was convinced I’d write a blog entry fiercely critical of Obama continuing the abuse of executive power that has been on display since WWII – a President going to war without Congressional approval. To be sure, in legal terms he could have done it according to the provisions of the War Powers Act, though even that would be a murky case.
The Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war. The War Powers Act of 1973 does allow a President to use force in cases of an emergency and then get approval from Congress. All Presidents since Nixon have claimed the act to be unconstitutional, although only Presidents Reagan (aid to the Contras) and Clinton (Kosovo) have ignored Congressional opposition and thus clearly violated the act. When force is used, the President is required to notify Congress within 48 hours, and then must get approval for action within sixty days. If approval is not given, the President has 30 days to remove the forces.
While over a hundred reports to Congress have been given, in line with what the act requires, only one (President Ford and the Mayaguez incident) involved a direct threat to Americans. In Syria there is no direct threat to the United States.
Practically the War Powers Act has actually strengthened the executive. Once military action is under way, Congress is loathe to revoke it, least it get painted as having undermined America’s military. Still, most Presidents have insisted it is unconstitutional — that as Commander in Chief the President does have the power to use the military, even absent a Congressional declaration of war. This grabbing of power for the Executive branch reached a pinnacle under President George W. Bush, who used 9-11, the Patriot Act, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to amass more executive power without regard to the will of Congress.
Up until a few days ago, most people thought that President Obama would follow in Bush’s footsteps, refuse to involve an especially gridlocked Congress and simply act in an international coalition that he could forge. This would defy the UN, since the Security Council has not approved action (Russia and China at this point would veto it) and to the chagrin of the anti-war activists who supported Obama, make Obama seem not much different than Bush. So much for that Nobel Peace Prize!
Obama still may go that route. But after British Prime Minister Cameron had to withdraw British support for a strike thanks to opposition in Parliament, it appears Obama recognized the need to slow down. That is a very wise decision.
My hope is that this represents a move away from amassing more power to the Executive and is setting a precedent. Going to war without Congressional approval (absent an emergency) is simply wrong. It violates both the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and makes fiascoes more likely. Yet even if the President isn’t ready to embrace a (for me to be welcomed) weakening of the Presidency, it makes sense. Going to Syria in even a limited role is controversial. To do so with minimal international and domestic support risks his Presidency.
Moreover, the country needs a true debate about the role of the United States foreign policy. America and the world are fundamentally different in 2013 than just ten years ago. After Iraq and Afghanistan there is real question about how eager the US should be to use military power. The Republican party has a new breed of isolationists, still a minority in the party, but gaining clout. Many Democrats (and some Republicans) are convinced we need to learn the hard lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, with 90% of all casualties of military action being civilian these days, would a limited strike make a difference? Would it be moral?
This debate – what to do about Syria – should take place both at home and abroad. There are big issues at stake. Can the UN act – is it possible for Russia and China to find a way to work with NATO and other states to support norms that trump sovereignty? What kind of role do Americans want their country to play in this new world where the US is no longer as dominant, and traditional military power seems unlikely to yield desired political results?
And though Syrians suffer daily from the acts of their own regime, would American action only make things worse? Would Assad use international controversy to increase his terror? If Obama acts without domestic support, would this weaken the United States on the world stage? Yes, Syrian civilians are suffering, and John McCain makes a good point when he says the world should not tolerate that and should help. But going in with guns blazing and no international consensus may do more harm than good.
The issues in play here go far beyond just the Syrian case and cut to the core of how world politics is changing. This is a time both at home and abroad for real reflection and discussion – patience rather than imprudence.