A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, January 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Congressman Peter Welch does not want the United States to “Americanize” the civil war in Syria.
To that end, Welch says, Congress must renew its commitment to the Constitution, which gives the legislative branch of the federal government not just the power to declare war but the authority to check and balance military interventions and alliances that might lead to war.
“Congress must accept its responsibility, not abdicate it,” says the Vermont Democrat, who is a key player on the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs.
To that end, Welch has this week taken a leadership role—along with New York Republican Chris Murphy—in a bipartisan push for Congress to restrict direct military aid to Syrian rebels.
Welch is not naïve, nor is he neglectful of realities on the ground in the Middle East. He traveled to the region last month as part of a congressional oversight mission, visiting an enormous refugee camp along the long the Turkish-Syrian border where he says he witnessed “enormous heartache and suffering in a humanitarian disaster on a vast scale.”
Yet, while the Democrat is quick to condemn the brutality of the Syrian government and its military, he notes that divisions between the various opposition factions means “there is no good choice when it comes to US interventions in the region.” And that includes the Obama administration’s decision to provide military aid to rebel forces.
“There’s an enormous risk that we ‘Americanize’ what is a civil war,” the congressman has argued. “So anyone, politicians foremost among them, who likes to suggest as an armchair general that there’s easy and definitive way to provide a military solution to this festering civil war I think is mistaken.”
On Thursday, Welch and Gibson, with the support of a bipartisan coalition of their colleagues, announced plans to introduce a House version of a Senate measure—sponsored by Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, as well as Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah—that would block any military aid to Syrian rebel groups and US support of military operations in Syria until authorized by a joint resolution of Congress. While the bill does allow for non-lethal humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, it would require the administration to report to Congress every ninety days detailing precisely what assistance is being provided to specific groups, organizations, movements and individuals in Syria.
“It’s vitally important that we recognize the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria is in a brutal and tragic civil war,” says Welch. “To the extent we can help, we should help. But sending direct military assistance to Syrian rebels—some of whom we support, others we don’t—raises the real risk of Americanizing a Sunni-Shia civil war. If America is to walk down this path, Congress should be involved in the decision to do so. This bill ensures that Congress will be a part of the decision making process.”
For too long, Congress has been a bystander as successive administrations have involved the United States in conflicts that should be carefully considered. Welch, who came to Congress as an outspoken critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has for a number of years argued that “it is time for the United States to return to a responsible foreign policy.”
The use of the term “return” is important.
As Welch notes, the Syrian conflict is heartbreaking and compelling. It demands diplomatic and humanitarian interventions.
But direct military aid is something else altogether.
The distinction is one that was well understood at the founding of the republic, and over the ensuing years when the United States established itself on the international stage. One-hundred-and-ninety-two years ago next week, on July 4, 1821, then–Secretary of State John Quincy Adams outlined the foreign policy of the still young nation by telling Congress, “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 who would four years later assume the role of commander-in-chief, as the nation’s sixth president, said of his country:
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.
Those were wise words in 1821 and, as Peter Welch notes, they are, as well, wise words for 2013.
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While Congress has not yet acted on its right to check and balance military interventions, the CIA has already begun shipping weapons into Syria.