Syria: Congress Wants a Vote

Congress, presently out of session, has many members clamoring for more consultation on an intervention.

While U.S. military forces are, in the words of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “ready to go” in the event that President Obama orders a military operation against the Syrian regime, a vocal minority in the U.S. Congress have pushed back with strong words of their own. Before any U.S. force is used, these lawmakers say, the White House must actively collaborate with Congress and receive their collective authorization.

The tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches has traditionally been fiercest when the United States creeps towards involvement in an international conflict. According to the U.S. Constitution, only the United States Congress can authorize a formal declaration of war. Presidents from both political parties, however, have often used their powers as Commander-in-Chief to commit U.S. military personnel and resources into an armed conflict without resorting to congressional approval. Although the United States has been involved in numerous armed conflicts over the past few decades, the last time Congress officially invoked the power to declare war was 1941, after a surprise attack by the Japanese inflicted significant damage on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

In fact, since World War II, Congress has had very little influence on formulating and effecting U.S. military policy, often deferring to the president as the nation’s commander-in-chief before an armed conflict begins. President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, was allowed to prosecute the war in Vietnam without a formal declaration of war—thanks to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that was passed by both houses of Congress in 1964—and past sessions of Congress have often preferred to go along with the executive branch without significant debate or discussion. The late George Schultz, the former U.S. secretary of state, even remarked that Congress was not even consulted prior to the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Many lawmakers have complained over the past few years that Congress has not had its fair share in the national debate when issues of war and peace are on the table. If history is any guide, they tend to be correct.

Today, there at least appears to be a renewed urgency from some in the legislative branch about asserting the role of Congress on the issue of war. This was perhaps illustrated no clearer than in 2011, when select members of both parties lambasted the Obama administration for, in their view, keeping Congress out of the loop on its decision to employ force against former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican, called President Obama’s decision at the time “an affront to our Constitution.”

Many of the same people are now clamoring for greater interaction between the White House and Congress before Tomahawk cruise missiles are launched on Syrian military facilities—even if that response is for a good cause (punishing Bashar al-Assad for his blatant disregard of international law in the use of chemical weapons). Rep. Scott Rigell, a congressman from Virginia, sent a letter to President Obama on Wednesday, August 28, requesting that he reconvene Congress from its summer recess in order to receive congressional authorization for the use of military force in the Syrian civil war. The White House may have been able to ignore the request if not for the fact that 116 lawmakers signed the document.

While some in Congress would no doubt like to have a far more public debate on a Syria intervention, President Obama still possesses powers instilled to him courtesy of the Constitution and statutory law. President Obama can legally launch a limited military operation without Congressional approval, as long as he complies by the 1973 War Powers Act, which forces him consult Congress beforehand and inform its members within forty-eight hours as to why military action is in the U.S. national interest. If the operation lasts more than sixty days, however, the president is mandated to withdraw U.S. forces unless Congress passes a resolution to use military force.

As top officials in the Obama administration have articulated over the past several days, the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians by a barbaric regime cannot stand unanswered. A forceful response, whatever that response may be, is required. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and vice president Joseph Biden conveyed this message most avidly during their speeches and press conferences—all but hinting that the U.S. military is ready to execute some type of limited attack on the Assad regime.

The question now is not whether military action will be taken, but when. But for many members of Congress, nothing should be done without their approval.

Daniel R. DePetris is a researcher for Wikistrat, Inc, and an independent analyst.

Image: Flickr/Ron Cogswell. CC BY 2.0.