A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman)
The Constitution is clear. Written by revolutionaries fresh from a protracted battle against a colonial empire that was forever involving them in wars of whim, the document was designed to assure that the powers of war making and military adventuring would never be concentrated in the hands of a monarch—or a president. So it is that, while the American president has from the founding of the republic been designated as the commander-in-chief, it is the Congress that retains the sole power to declare wars and to set terms for the engagement of the United States in the country in the “attachments and entanglements in foreign affairs” against which George Washington warned.
While it can be argued that presidents have the authority to act unilaterally to repel attacks and defend the country, there is far less justification for the wars of whim and casual military engagements that have come to define the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first.
Yet, since 1941, succeeding executives have entered into wars, military engagements and schemes to aid foreign armies without ever seeking or receiving congressional authorization.
Often, the United States has policed the world without the informed consent of the American people, and without any evidence of the popular support that ought to be achieved before any country mingles its destiny with the struggles of distant lands.
Such is the case with the Syrian imbroglio.
That Syria has degenerated into crisis is clear.
That the violence on the ground is atrocious, and horrifying, goes without saying.
But the notion that the Syrian mess is an American problem, or that the United States can or should choose a favorite in the fight, is highly debatable. There is no defense for the actions of the Syrian government, but only the most casual observers presume that the rebels are universally committed to noble and democratic ends.
The American people “get” that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and that any US involvement there had the potential to make untenable demands on this country’s future. Polls by the Pew Research Center and various media outlets have found high levels of opposition to even the most minimal of US engagement with the rebels.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans have consistently said that the United States does not have a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Late last year, Pew found that 65 percent of Americans oppose any move by the United States and its allies to provide arms to anti-government forces in Syria.
Since the Obama administration—under pressure from Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, and other hawks—announced this month that the United States would aid the Syrian rebels, opposition to the move has actually risen. Indeed, the latest polling shows that 70 percent of Americans oppose the United States and its allies’ sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria. A mere 20 percent favor the initiative.
Yet Obama is taking the next step toward an active US role in the conflict.
Public opinion is not the only measure to be applied in weighing military engagements. But the wisdom of the people ought not be casually dismissed—especially when it comes to questions of whether their country should involve itself in distant civil wars.
If ever there was a time when congressional oversight needed—make that required, if one inclined toward a literal reading of the Constitution—this would seem to be it.
But Congress is disengaged and dysfunctional.
The House and the Senate choose not, for the most part, to govern. And they are especially resistant to governing when it comes to checking and balancing presidential decisions to embark upon military endeavors that carry with them the prospect of escalation and blowback. Congress relies too frequently on the convoluted and constitutionally dubious War Powers Act as an out for avoiding direct responsibility.
This is deeply unfortunate, not just in the immediate moment but on the long arc of history.
The United States is ill-suited to a career of empire, as former Secretary of State John Quincy Adams reminded the Congress in 1821.
“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” Adams explained four years before he would assume the presidency. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
It was an understanding of the many threats that go with the search for monsters to destroy that led the framers to rest the war-making power with the Congress. Now, however, Congress is resistant to taking up the basic work of oversight.
Indeed, its inclination is toward writing blank checks.
During the recent debate over the National Defense Authorization Act, Congressman Chris Gibson, R-New York, and John Garamendi, D-California, submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have removed “Sense of Congress” language—previously added to the NDAA—which might be read as signaling support for US military interventions and engagements in Syria. Only 123 members of the House (sixty-two Republicans, sixty-one Democrats) supported the amendment, while 301 members (168 Republicans and 133 Democrats) opposed it.
Garamendi is generally a supporter of President Obama, as are most of the sixty Democrats who joined him in supporting the amendment. They understand that congressional oversight does not weaken or undermine the executive; rather, it establishes a framework in which presidents, their aides and military commanders can operate.
It is not a matter of partisanship that argues for congressional action. It is a combination of common sense and respect for the Constitution.
In arguing for the amendment, Gibson made the wise case that “we need to proceed with more caution—having a full and robust debate on the situation in Syria and how and if the United States should be involved. As we saw in Libya—operations I opposed from the start—it is critical we use the utmost caution when involving Americans overseas.”
That was the common sense argument. But it did not prevail.
This is troubling.
It made even more troubling by the fact that the practical argument made by the congressman from New York is, as well, the constitutional argument.
A Congress that cedes its authority to check and balance the military manipulations of the executive branch does not merely diminish its own stature. It undermines the separation of powers that is essential to keeping the United States from involving itself “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
No war of whim should ever be embarked upon without a declaration from Congress.
No military endeavor—and that certainly includes the arming of rebels in foreign conflicts—should ever be engaged in without oversight from the US House and the US Senate. That’s a standard that ought to be applied by congressional conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, no matter who sits in the White House.
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