Congress’s Role in War

Aug 30, 2013 Issues: Foreign Affairs

For over two years now, the Syrian people have been engaged in a civil war for control of the country. Government forces are battling an assortment of rebel groups, including some that may be affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Last year, there was evidence of the use of chemical weapons. More recently, it appears that a great deal of sarin gas was used in an attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Videos of women and children suffering horrible seizures have been circulated by rebel groups.

With President Obama clearly stating that use of chemical weapons would call for punishment, the administration is preparing for military strikes. As with any military engagement taken outside a declared war, this raises the issue of what Congress’s role should be. Can the President act alone?

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. This is often misconstrued to mean that only Congress can order U.S. forces into battle. I agree with most constitutional scholars that the President has every right to engage U.S. forces the moment our nation’s security is threatened. When Congress has declared war, it has often been to say that a state of war already exists. This was the case in World War II when the declaration came days after Pearl Harbor.

In recent years, Congress authorized the use of force in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in the case of Libya. It does not seem likely that the President will seek authorization for engagement in Syria. I believe that is a grave mistake.

While the President has called Congressional leaders and members of the intelligence and armed services committees, he has not shared very much in the way of the strategy to punish Syria. According to a senator who was on one unclassified call, Secretary of State John Kerry kept using the phrase “a range of options” but gave no details about what those options are.

This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron called Parliament back into session to debate the merits of military intervention. He narrowly lost a vote on a resolution supporting engagement. The Arab League did not explicitly support military force in their resolution. In the United Nations, Russia is expected to block any Security Council resolution.

Right now, President Obama doesn’t even have a “coalition of the willing” like President Bush had for the war in Iraq. Despite this, the New York Times reports that the President may be ready to go it alone.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Constitution is clear in Article One, Section 8 that Congress has the power to define and punish “Offences against the law of nations.”

Certainly the use of chemical weapons is an alarming breach of international law. While Syria has not signed the latest treaty to eliminate chemical weapons, use of chemicals against civilians still explicitly violates the Geneva Protocol. Syria signed this treaty without reservations in 1968 while Bashar Assad’s father was the minister of defense.

I believe President Obama should engage the entire Congress and consult with us on the strategy for engagement in Syria. Right now, too much is being withheld from the American people. Important decisions are being made among only a small handful of the President’s advisors.

The civil war is not a threat to our national security, but our engagement there could have repercussions that could threaten American lives. Syria is one of the principle sponsors of the terrorist group Hezbollah. They share borders with three important allies: Turkey, Israel and Jordan. Conflict could certainly spill over borders and terrorists may attempt strikes worldwide.

Engaging in Syria is a serious matter. The American people are right to be skeptical of our ability to influence the civil war or punish Assad without causing more problems. This is why the President needs to call Congress back to Washington before taking action. I’ve joined with more than 140 of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on a letter calling him to consult Congress. Dozens more Democrats are sending a separate letter with a similar sentiment.

The people’s representatives shouldn’t be left in the dark. Military engagement is serious business and we should take action only when we can be united in our purpose and goals.