Protesters holding up their red painted hands stand behind Secretary of State John Kerry as he testifies on Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to advance President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
“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…. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” declared President Barack Obama, addressing the ongoing crisis in Syria, on August 31.
The president was under escalating pressure from Congress and a skeptical public, but he nonetheless deserves credit for making the decision to call on Congress to authorize any action toward Syria. He chose to weather the inevitable scorn of armchair patriots who believe the president can dispatch the military anywhere, at any time, for any reason. He reportedly overruled the advice of most of his national security team, who wanted to strike Syria without going to Congress. After the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for authority to join the United States in the strike, Obama knew the vote in this bitterly divided and dysfunctional Congress would be a tough sell.
According to polls, a plurality of Americans oppose striking Syria even if there is definitive evidence that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people: Americans are just not convinced that a US military response is the answer. Now it is time for democracy to work. Obama acknowledged that the American people are weary of war and disinclined to extend a long run as “policeman of the world” to another stage. The president even 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.” With polls showing that almost 80 percent of Americans thought the House and Senate should have a say, and with close to 200 House Republicans and Democrats demanding it as well, Obama also acknowledged a weariness with executive overreach—although notably, and regrettably, he still claimed “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.”
While he tried to keep a foot in the antiwar and rule-of-law camps that elected him, the president framed his August 31 remarks not as a request for the advice and consent of Congress, but as his opening argument in this “debate.” Much like Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke the day before, the president made an aggressive argument for military intervention. “In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted,” Obama said, adding that “after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.”
War will be averted only if members of Congress who care about supporting human rights through nonmilitary means and international law rise to the moral and political challenge of this moment. History is not encouraging. Only on rare occasions has Congress denied presidents the authority to intervene militarily: during the later stages of the Vietnam War, the House and Senate tried to tell Richard Nixon not to spread the fighting to other countries, and the Boland amendments of the 1980s sought to prevent Ronald Reagan from supporting Contra forces that sought to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. But for the most part, presidents get what they ask for.
Congressional Democrats are under immense pressure to back the president, if only to help him avoid the embarrassment experienced by Prime Minister Cameron. And it is sophisticated pressure, with key Democrats maneuvering to make a yes vote more appealing by narrowing the authority given the president. The resolution that emerged from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee placed a time limit of sixty days on the authorization to strike Syria, with one thirty-day extension. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who just months ago had warned Congress that military action in Syria “could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment,” performed a complete reversal, now warning that “there are always risks in taking action, but there are also risks with inaction.” In the House, where skepticism of the president’s plans is more widespread on both sides of the aisle, Nancy Pelosi said mildly that she hoped the public would be persuaded by the president’s arguments, though she did request that the administration reveal more about the intelligence backing the case against Assad.
The administration should certainly share its evidence, but even conclusive proof of Assad’s crimes hardly settles the argument for war. The point of congressional efforts should not be to tailor a plan for intervention; it should be to steer the White House back into the mainstream of international diplomacy and engagement as a response to atrocity. As Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan says, “The use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, but this is an issue that is best addressed by the international community.” This alternative stance appeals to internationalist Democrats who care about human rights and averting war but who find themselves in a necessary coalition with Republicans who are more inclined toward isolationism.
Despite such bedfellows, there is no reason to cede the moral high ground here to supporters of intervention. In a sharply worded and well-timed report, the International Crisis Group—a leading global think tank and advocacy organization—has weighed in with a principled argument against intervention. The ICG writes, “Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.” The ICG outlines a six-step peace plan for Syria that centers on the idea of a Geneva II conference, co-sponsored by the United States and Russia. That, in a striking bit of irony, was an idea that John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, developed in May.
Just as diplomacy and politics have the best chance of producing a lasting peace for Syria, so it is democracy here at home that could provide a check against militarism and war. The American people, who are wisely wary of military intervention after our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, should make our views known to our representatives. Activist groups have a key role to play; they are already organizing within the narrow window before House and Senate votes that could come in the week of September 9. The group Peace Action is urging Americans to tell the White House: “I oppose military intervention and military support in Syria. I support massive efforts for a political solution and continued humanitarian aid.”
That is the right message. It’s now up to Congress, and the president, to heed it.