A U.S. strike on Syria is a near-lock, with American officials declaring their certainty that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed President Obama's "red line" by using chemical weapons earlier this month to kill hundreds of people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
With China and Russia holding veto power on the U.N. Security Council, the United States will surely have to forge ahead without U.N. approval. But will Obama take military action without the imprimatur of Congress, too?
If Obama was formally declaring war with Syria, this wouldn't even be a question. The Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war. However, the last time that actually happened was right before World War II. America has fought many wars since, but semantics have sometimes been employed to bypass Congress. Other times — like in the run-up to the Iraq War — Congress has authorized military action without actually declaring war.
Other times, presidents have just gone ahead on their own. Two years ago, for instance, Obama decided to intervene in the war in Libya, and launched missile strikes without the approval of Congress, raising the hackles of lawmakers in both parties.
This time around, things might be less controversial for Obama. First of all, many lawmakers in both parties support military action against Syria. Plus, the scope of that action would likely be limited. "The Obama administration would likely argue it's not proposing war, just, potentially, a missile strike that would represent a slap to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and caution that there's more where that came from," writes Jennifer Skalka Tulumello in the Christian Science Monitor. In this view, a U.S. military strike would be "an effort to dislodge [Assad], but not a full commitment of troops, money, and time."
Still, getting Congressional approval would "give Obama political cover," writes Tulumello, especially considering he won't have the backing of the United Nations.
Congressional hearings before the Iraq War revealed that the administration was seriously low-balling its estimates of the difficulties of a postwar occupation. Because Bush and his White House treated that as a problem of inconvenient spin, it didn't do them any good. But a better president would have realized that the problem was substance, not spin, and that it couldn't be wished away. [The Washington Post]
Some lawmakers are already criticizing Obama for potentially launching missiles before Congress reconvenes in September. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called the issue "too great for Congress to be brushed aside, while Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) claimed that, without broad Congressional support, "the order of a military attack on the government of Syria would be illegal and unconstitutional."
Perhaps the best justification for going to Congress comes from the White House itself, via Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke out against the possibility of Bush taking military action against Iran in 2007:
It is precisely because the consequences of war — intended or otherwise — can be so profound and complicated that our Founding Fathers vested in Congress, not the President, the power to initiate war, except to repel an imminent attack on the United States or its citizens. They reasoned that requiring the President to come to Congress first would slow things down … allow for more careful decision making before sending Americans to fight and die … and ensure broader public support.
The Founding Fathers were, as in most things, profoundly right. [Biden, via BuzzFeed]
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- China's leader is telling the People's Liberation Army to prepare for war
- How I lost all my money
- The best books we read in 2014
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- The religious right isn't retreating — it's reforming
- How to save money: 12 great personal finance tips
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
Subscribe to the Week