Congress sort of demands a say on Syria

    We’ve seen this scenario so many times: A president contemplates or initiates military action, and the bystanders on Capitol Hill complain that they’re being bypassed.

    Ronald Reagan bombed Libya three decades ago without congressional approval, Bill Clinton ignored Congress 14 years ago when he dropped bombs on the Serbs in Kosovo, and Barack Obama did virtually the same thing — bombing Libya again — just two years ago. Now it’s rinse-and-repeat with respect to Syria. Congress says it wants to be consulted before the bombs fall, and/or Congress insists that no bombs shall fall without prior congressional authorization (typically, Congress can’t quite decide what it wants).

    So it goes in this era of the imperial presidency (a term coined by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., to describe the Nixon administration). Despite Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the power to declare war, the modern commander-in-chief basically calls the shots.

    And the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which ostensibly reigns in the White House, is actually riddled with loopholes. A president can initiate a military action and wait up to 48 hours before even notifying Congress, and he can send U.S. forces into combat for up to 60 days without congressional authorization or a formal declaration of war. Besides, Congress hasn’t formally declared war on anybody since 1941.

    So what we’ve heard, these past 24 hours, is Congress pleading for some sort of role in the Syrian crisis. Some members just want to be “consulted.” But some members think that Congress deserves to be treated as an equal in the decision-making process; as 116 House members (including 18 Democrats) contend in a letter to Obama, “Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”

    But here’s where it really gets complicated. House Republican leaders are not demanding that Obama wait for congressional authorization – John Boehner hasn’t uttered a peep about that – because they want to be free to rip Obama if a bombing campaign ultimately goes sour. An authorization vote would make them complicit.

    And besides, an authorization debate would further expose the party’s internal tensions on foreign policy. The neoconservatives and national security hawks (who favor a muscular presidency) are clashing with the tea-partying libertarians (who want to curb the presidency’s warmaking powers). This is no surprise, of course. This Congress can’t even get its act together to pass a farm bill.

    As Trey Radel, a tea-partying House Republican, tells Buzzfeed: “There are groups of Republicans that are comfortable with the executive branch unilaterally using our armed forces anywhere in the world. I’m not comfortable with that.” But House Republican Peter King, and his fellow hawks, are indeed comfortable. He says, “we are where we are (on Syria), and as Americans we should support (Obama). We should not be talking about or insisting on congressional approval.”

    Democrats on the Hill are similarly divided on Syria — as they were 10 years ago during the prelude to war in Iraq. Antiwar liberals are clashing with human-rights interventionists who insist that the chemical attacks warrant a U.S. military response. And a lot of Democrats have simply fallen silent — which is easy to do at the moment, because the lawmakers are still enjoying their long August vacation, far from the Washington press corps.

    No wonder Obama has the upper hand. A warmaking president will generally trump a cacophony of congressional voices — even a president who’s on the cusp of contradicting his own previous words.

    Here’s what candidate Obama said in 2007, on the issue of warmaking: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

    Does Syria constitute “an actual or imminent threat” to America? Obama has yet to make that case. He contended yesterday, in a PBS interview, that punishing Syria for using chemical weapons could have “a positive impact on our national security over the long term” – but that’s far less rigorous than the criteria he floated in ’07.

    If the new (endlessly elastic) standard for a military action is simply that it might have “a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” then future presidents will be free to wage unilateral war with minimal justification. Perhaps Congress can fulfill its constitutional role and push back effectively. Perhaps pigs can fly.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1 

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