Against the recommendations of his advisers, and his own inclinations, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of force in Syria.
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective,” he said on Saturday in the Rose Garden. “We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”
The implications of this vote will reach beyond Damascus. It is a historic opportunity for Congress to reclaim its constitutional power to declare war, a prerogative that has been eroded by decades of presidential overreach, most recently in the case of this administration’s “kinetic military action” in Libya. Lawmakers also have the chance to keep the country out of yet another Mideast war.
Will an often ambivalent Congress rise to this challenge? Although Obama has said he favors only very limited strikes to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his apparent use of chemical weapons, his administration’s proposed language authorizing the use of military of force extends beyond that.
What the president is asking for imposes no limits on possible targets and would arguably allow him to widen the war to Hezbollah or even Iran if a link to weapons of mass destruction could be asserted. Despite the president’s pledge of no “boots on the ground,” the authorization clearly would allow him to deploy ground troops “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” to the administration’s Syria objectives.
All of these determinations, by the way, would be made by the president. Nowhere does the proposed authorization of military force require him to go back to Congress to escalate the war.
“As the history of the 9/11 AUMF shows, and as prior AUMFs show (think about the Gulf of Tonkin), a President will interpret an AUMF for all it is worth, and then some,” writes Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith.
Members of Congress who attended the White House’s Labor Day weekend briefings were reportedly skeptical.
“It is not clear to me that we know what the result of this attack would be, or whether it will be effective,” Connecticut Democratic Rep. Jim Himes was quoted as saying. “And in that room, there’s a lot of memories of another time when the president’s people came in and said they had slam-dunk intelligence and that’s not an episode most members ever want to repeat.”
Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, was first elected in 2008 to strengthen the Democratic majority ushered in two years earlier by the Iraq War’s dwindling popularity.
In addition to congressional Democrats’ bad memories of Iraq, some on the left are starting to find their voices against Obama on national-security issues. Roughly 80 percent of the Congressional Progressive Caucus voted with Justin Amash and against both Obama and the Democratic leadership on an amendment this summer that would have curbed funding for the NSA’s controversial data-collection practices.
The rise of Amash, Rand Paul, and other anti-interventionist Republicans also complicates the march to war. These lawmakers can rally Tea Party conservatives against a military strike without making antiwar Democrats feel that they are giving aid and comfort to a partisan attack on the president.
To be sure, there will be partisans and political opportunists. It is hard, however, to see many in the latter camp voting with Obama. Sam Nunn’s vote against the Persian Gulf war in 1991 ended his 1992 presidential aspirations; Al Gore’s vote for it helped win him a spot on the Democratic ticket.
Joe Lieberman’s staunch support for the Iraq War doomed his 2004 presidential campaign and eventually cost him his 2006 Democratic senatorial primary. John Kerry and John Edwards managed to lead the Democrats’ 2004 ticket despite voting for the war, but that record prevented them from running an effective antiwar campaign against George W. Bush.
The Clintons are liberal interventionists by temperament. But just as Bill Clinton hesitated to take a strong stand on the Gulf War ahead of the ’92 primaries, it is hard to imagine Hillary voting for the Iraq War if she had known it would cause her to lose the 2008 nomination to then-antiwar Obama.
This time around, most of the political opportunists—especially on the Republican side—will want to take a pass on Obama’s war.
But the administration does have some remaining cards to play. First, the Democratic leadership is by and large in favor of some kind of military strike. Second, there still remains a significant faction of Republicans who are generically hawkish and in particular see bipartisan support for wars as proof of statesmanship.
It is possible that Obama’s broad war resolution can be checked by Capitol Hill in a way that gives Congress a stake in the outcome. Obama may also find a way to triangulate between those who want a brief, symbolic strike and proponents of regime change in Syria. He will need the votes of both camps.
If Congress follows British Parliament in rejecting a Syria military adventure, it will strengthen the hands of the anti-interventionist Republicans vying to be the party’s future. With most Americans still wary of intervention, it will be a rebuke to the neoconservative and neoliberal foreign-policy consensus in Washington.
If Congress rubberstamps Obama’s strikes, much will depend on whether the president gets to wage the war he wants. If Obama can strike quickly and get out before the American people detect any adverse consequences, antiwar voices in both parties could face a political setback. But if the president triggers a wider war for which he has not prepared the country, the congressional vote will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?