President Obama talks to bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington while discussing a military response to Syria, September 3, 2013. (REUTERS/ Larry Downing)
In an extraordinary development that reflected both the level of division regarding military intervention in Syria and the power of the popular outcry from Americans who want their Constitution to be respected, President Obama on Saturday indicated that he will ask Congress for authorization to use force against the Middle Eastern country.
Obama, who had seemed to be on track to launch missile strikes without the approval of the House and Senate, faced loud objections from House members. More than 150 Democratic and Republican members signed letters demanding that the president ask for the approval of Congress before taking any action. The White House took note when Democrats such as California Congressman John Garamendi pointedly declared that “the president has the responsibility to seek authorization from our nation’s elected leaders before initiating military action.”
On Saturday, in a White House Rose Garden announcement that shocked much of official Washington, the president agreed.
“We should have this debate,” Obama announced, just days after the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for authority to join the United States in intervening in Syria.
Now Obama has set up a similar test. While the president continues to assert that he has the “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” he acknowledged Saturday that “I’m also mindful that I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
With that expression of regard for the system of checks and balances, the president would be hard-pressed to go ahead with a military intervention that the House or Senate rejected.
Indeed, though he will lobby for the strike, Obama clung Saturday to his past association with antiwar sentiment. “A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited,” he said. “I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end.”
Because Congress does not return from its current recess until September 9, the president’s decision appears to delay what had seemed to be an imminent strike. It has also created an opening for opponents of this military intervention to press members of the House and Senate to vote “no.”
Obama left no doubt that he wants to take action. He said Saturday that he is “prepared to strike” Syria, in response to reports of chemical weapons attacks in that war-torn country. “I have decided that the US should take military action against Syrian military targets,” said the president, who described the desired action as “limited in duration and scope.”
The key word in that statement was “should”—as opposed to “will.”
NBC News reported that most members of the president’s national security team wanted the president to act without Congress. But the growing demand for a vote—coming not just from Republicans who usually oppose the president but from Democrats who are often aligned with him—led the president on Saturday to acknowledge the objection to going to war without the constitutionally mandated authorization from Congress: “Over the last several days, we’ve heard from several members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree.”
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective,” said Obama. “We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”
How much of a break there will be from business as usual remains unclear.
The White House will ask for limited authority to take necessary steps “to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons.” The actual language of the request is important, as will be the language of the proposal that is debated by the House and Senate.
There should be a difference between an “authorization of the use of force,” which ought to be limited, and a “declaration of war,” which is far more sweeping. But the lines were blurred by former President George W. Bush, who used an authorization for the use of force in Iraq to initiate a full-scale war.
Fears about mission creep are real, not just in Congress but among the American people—50 percent of those questioned in an NBC poll this week said they did not want a US attack on Syria even if there is confirmation of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on civilians.
When it comes to military intervention, skepticism and questioning is valid—and potentially definitional. There are members of Congress, such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash, who say the House could well reject the president’s request.
Of course, the White House will lobby hard. And, if the past is any indication, the media coverage of the debate will err on the side of the White House.
But the president has now said that there is no need to rush to war.
The space that has been created allows for sorting through the facts, for debating the options and for House and Senate votes on whether to intervene militarily in the affairs of another distant land.
This is as the founders intended when they wrote a Constitution that gives the power to declare war not to an all-powerful commander-in-chief but to an unwieldy Congress.
As one of the essential figures in the development of the Constitution, George Mason, said: “I am for clogging rather than facilitating war.”
The president’s decision to delay action until he hears from Congress respects the Constitution’s language, and its intent.
Now, Congress must do the same by taking its responsibility seriously enough to demand facts, to consider whether acts of war are justified and to determine whether the United States—as opposed to the United Nations—should be the police officer of the world.
For his part, the president has shown respect for the role of Congress is a system of separated powers. He must be clear now that, like David Cameron, he will respect the decision of the legislators—even if it clogs rather than facilitates war,
To do so would move the United States toward a restoration of the rule of law that was disregarded under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and that has yet to be restored.
Katrina vanden Heuvel warns Congress to think carefully before intervening in Syria.