Congress should lead on Syria

By Bennett Ramberg
June 7, 2013

Civilians hold up pictures of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and of his father, Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad (R), as they celebrate in Qusair June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rami Bleibel

The American public is hearing it again – the drumbeat for intervention into a foreign land. Now it’s about Syria.

For decades, presidents have dominated the decision-making to commit American forces to battle. But today, as the country approaches another decisive moment, after a decade of problematic wars, perhaps the time has come for another decider, Congress, to enter the picture. The legislature must not just ask the tough questions but assume the leadership role. A novel idea? Not really. After all this is what the Constitution demands. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have led the beat calling for Washington to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria to give the rebels a chance to protect themselves while bringing down the Assad regime.

Two legislators alone, however, do not represent Congress as a body. Yet the senators have helped focus the public debate: Should the United States, which controls the world’s most capable military, step up to prevent the growing slaughter that could spread across the Middle East? Or, is the danger of another quagmire so daunting that Washington should say “no way?”

If Congress endorses the no-fly zone, it must do so with the understanding that bombardment of Syria’s air defenses, aircraft and command and control – the classic method to apply a no-fly zone – may well be required. McCain is also now proposing to repeatedly crater Syrian airfields with stand-off cruise missiles, to prevent launch of government aircraft, while placing Patriot anti-aircraft rockets along the Jordanian and Turkish border to shoot down Assad’s bombers.

These actions would mark a clear act of war. But rather than recoil, Congress should be honest with itself and the American public and issue a clear war declaration as prescribed by the Constitution.

A declaration of war? Yes, this will likely raise eyebrows. For the conventional wisdom is that no country declares war any more. Certainly not the United States, which for decades has turned a blind eye to its own constitutional requirement.

Indeed, it has been more than 70 years since Pearl Harbor and the war declaration that followed. In launching its formal entry into World War II, along with the other four declared wars in American history – the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War and World War I – Washington had responded to attacks by national adversaries on the American homeland, territories or maritime interests.

Contrast those declarations with the meekness Congress has displayed when the country faced wars of choice. Legislators either avoided decision-making; acquiesced to authority that presidents sought and got from international bodies, or issued resolutions that gave the White House qualified leeway to use force.

Do any of these templates provide a path for U.S.-Syria policy? In principal they do. However, there remains a “but…”.

Under the first template, Congress just allows the president to have his way. The result follows more than a century of military interventions – but not major wars – as seen in old newsreels, where the Marines landed serially in the Caribbean, Central America as well as the Middle East (Lebanon).

In 1973, responding to Congress’s failure to properly vet Washington’s plunge into Vietnam, the legislature revisited the issue. But rather than materially curtail presidential authority, it granted the chief executive the unfettered ability to commit force for 60 days. The but: Is this what we want in Syria?

Codification or not, some presidents still sought independent endorsement to validate and legitimize committing forces to battle. But to avoid the risk of a balking Congress and to assure unimpeded freedom of action, presidents instead turned to international organizations. President Harry S. Truman set the example in 1950, when he got the United Nations Security Council to ratify American and allied entry into the Korean War under the U.N. flag. Sixty years later, President Barack Obama relied on the U.N. Security Council, as well as the Arab League, to go into Libya. For Kosovo in 1998, the Clinton administration sought the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s imprimatur.

However, the but here confronts impossibility today in Syria: Both China and Russia would likely stifle a U.N. Security Council resolution and NATO has no gusto for war.

This leaves the congressional “resolution.” The but in this case is the legacy of overreach. Presidents have run with resolutions in directions beyond congressional authorization. In the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, for example, Congress granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the right “to repel” armed attack on U.S. forces and “prevent further aggression” – but not to place hundreds of thousands of troops in Vietnam to wage a nearly decade-long war.

Then after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the 2003 Iraq resolution gave President George W. Bush authority to use armed force “as he determines” to “defend” the United States while “enforc[ing]” Security Council resolutions. The Security Council, however, never endorsed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. By giving the president the ability to defend the United States, Congress never presumed that Washington would plunge into the long sectarian war that followed.

Given these buts, why would a war declaration against Syria be preferable? First, mindful of recent wars gone so badly and Congress’s string of failures to thoroughly vet the risks, a declaration debate’s sobering effects could prompt the legislature – and the country – to question whether it is in the national interest to enter the Syrian conflict.

If the answer is “yes,” lawmakers should say so with unqualified clarity: “The United States hereby declares war on the Syrian Arab Republic.”

If Congress declines, the president should resist the temptation to rely on the ill-conceived War Powers Resolution or his arguable power as commander in chief to go it alone. At least when it comes to wars of choice, the time has come for the people’s representatives, not the White House, to take the lead.

10 comments

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To declare the war require clear thinking, understanding of consequences and courage – the qualities that current congress with 10% approval rating is clearly lacking.

Posted by Nirbijan | Report as abusive

We already had one disastrous war in the Middle East, If Mcain and the rest of Congress want a war, they should pick up their kids and go to war. Just leave the US military out of it. Who do we side with, in case you didn’t notice, it’s Iran Iraq and Syria Vs Alqaeda, moderated have been sidelined that’s what’s going on. Don’t be silly, how can they let you write an oped when you don’t know the facts or history

Posted by Dyota | Report as abusive

Congress should does go to Syria, they won’t be missed, they are what’s wrong with this country, and all their corrupt campaign contributions, that would send them to Jail in other parts of the world.

Posted by Dyota | Report as abusive

So, we should declare war on Syria because we don’t like the way their civil war is going? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Really sets a great precedent, doesn’t it? McCain, for one, is itching to get us into another war. I’m not certain whether he is crazy or merely as stupid as he appears to be. Considering his running mate in his presidential campaign, however, I’m leaning toward the latter.

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive

Congress?

Lead?

hahahahahahhahahahha …

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

This is a no-brainer for the members of Congress – OUR Congress – based on the final paragraph of the article.
Members of Congress face an upcoming reelection, right? If they debate and vote in FAVOR of war against Syria, then they can pretty much kiss their reelection bid on its hairy backside.
However, No-Can-Do-Billy-Bobama is already on the way OUT of the White House. NO reelection in his future.
Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I can pretty much guess what OUR congressional misleaders are thinking…

Posted by Splitter226 | Report as abusive

Some of us never learn. Bomb – Bomb – Bomb, Bomb-Bomb X-country. It’s the drumbeat of the blind hawks who have investments in arms manufacturing paid by US “foreign aid”.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

“Indeed, it has been more than 70 years since Pearl Harbor and the war declaration that followed.”

Since then no country has provoked or attacked the US. If the US attacks Syria it would be the aggressor. It would be a real war. The only victory to expect is a Vietnam type of victory. Thousands of US soldiers would come home in body bags.

The Jewish lobby which intimidates members of Congress, according to Hagel, is pushing Congress to attack Israel’s enemies. In this case the US will go to war against Syria, Iran, Hezbollah which will be backed by Russia and China. This will be tougher than Vietnam and the US would meet the same fate that USRR met in Afghanistan:defeat.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

Even substantial rumors of USA declaring war on SAR will bring world back to the peak of Cold War – we already threw our weight behind Assad, so expect permanent fleet exercises with live fires off the Syrian cost for starters, and in case of accidents it’ll be not some S-300s US AF to be thinking about, it’ll be SS-18s,SS-25s and SS-27s for any american.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Declaring war against a country that poses no threat to the United States is absurd. And to let the warmongers in the Senate lead the charge (McCain, Graham, et.al) is even more insane.

The problem is not so much that the US intervenes militarily too often (it does), it is the massive profits that doing so reaps for those supporting war but naturally not having to get their hands dirty in doing to.

In declaring war against a country, that gives them the green light to strike back at the US in whatever form they wish.

But then considering consequences has never been a strong point of Congress. Nor does the media even probe what the consequences will be.

If Congress wants to go to war, let them grab a rifle and head to the front lines.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive