When the War Drums Drown Out Democracy

That the Obama administration can go to war in Syria over Congress’ objections should worry everyone.

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Syrian army soldiers are seen deployed in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus on Aug. 24, 2013.
Syrian army soldiers are seen deployed in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus on Aug. 24, 2013.

Congress this week seems to have finally woken up and remembered that it's supposed to play a role in deciding whether or not the U.S. goes to war, with scores of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle calling on President Obama to receive congressional approval before bombing Syria. A letter to the administration signed by more than 100 members of the House states, "Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution. … If you deem that military action in Syria is necessary, Congress can reconvene at your convenience."

Of course, the Obama administration hasn't felt the need to get the go-ahead for military action from Congress before. (The House even voted against having the U.S. join the effort to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, after the fact.) There's really no reason to think it will wait for authorization this time, though administration officials claim to be keeping members of Congress in the loop.

It's a sad state of affairs, really: Congress has largely abdicated its role in deciding whether or not military actions will take place, and the executive branch – under both parties – has made it clear that it doesn't feel the need to wait on Congressional approval anyway. This dynamic is even more striking if one looks at what is going on at the moment in the U.K.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

British Prime Minister David Cameron, like Obama, seems intent on striking Syria. However, unlike Obama, he has called a session of Parliament first. An initial plan to hold a vote was even scrapped when members of both the Labour and Conservative parties balked at authorizing the use of force before U.N. weapons inspectors released their findings regarding the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

This is how it should work in a democracy: publicly debating whether or not to go to war and then holding a vote before the executive branch acts. Even though the Obama administration – mindful of the lessons of the Iraq War – is planning to release evidence regarding Assad's use of chemical weapons, it is under no obligation to, and could easily have gone ahead with strikes today. That the administration can pull the country into a conflict with barely any public debate and no approval from the legislative branch should worry everybody.

Now, as Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., tweeted yesterday, Obama and other congressional leaders don't want to put the Syria strike to a vote "because the vote would fail." A war-weary public is firmly against intervention in Syria – with 60 percent opposed, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll – and politicians can read the writing on that particular wall.

[Vote: Should the United States Intervene in Syria?]

But it's worth remembering that Obama himself once felt the same way about the need for congressional approval regarding use of the military. In 2007, he told the Boston Globe, "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat." Vice President Joe Biden even threatened to impeach then-President George W. Bush if Bush authorized strikes on Iran. If only they carried those convictions with them into the White House.

For a host of reasons, intervening in Syria is a bad idea. The tangible benefits that a military strike could actually achieve are murky at best, and throwing the U.S.'s lot in with the Syrian rebels when very little is known about them is a dangerous proposition. An administration official has even admitted that the prospective strike is meant to be "just muscular enough not to get mocked"; this is an exercise in fighting just enough of a war to save some face. (It is also eternally irksome that war hawks want to join every fight in the Middle East, while brutal civil wars happen in other parts of the globe with nary a peep from anyone.)

But even if you believe that the U.S. has an obligation to join the fray in Syria, you should be worried that, in a democracy, the executive can launch an offensive strike with no oversight. Congress was given the power to declare war for a reason; it's time that everyone inside and outside government remembered that.

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