Where's Congress on Syria?

That’s the question that should haunt the American people as debate over Syria rages.

Where’s Congress? That’s the question that should haunt the American people in the wake of President Obama’s apparent decision to get their country into another Mideast war. In the long history of the American experience, matters of war and peace have always been hotly debated. And those debates traditionally have been most intense and concentrated in Congress.

Remember Arkansas senator William Fulbright’s famous hearings on the Vietnam War, beginning in 1966. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he shared the Democratic Party label with his president, Lyndon Johnson, who had perpetrated the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. But that shared party label didn’t prevent Fulbright from going after the president with these words at the start of his hearings:

Under our system, Congress, and especially the Senate, shares responsibility with the President for making our Nation’s foreign policy. This war, however, started and continues as a Presidential war in which Congress, since the fraudulent Gulf of Tonkin episode, has not played a significant role. The purpose of these hearings is to develop the best advice and greater public understanding of the policy alternatives available and possible congressional action to end American participation in the war.

Clearly, Fulbright wasn’t messing around as he thrust himself into the war controversy based on his standing in a Congress charged with joint responsibility for America’s wars.

Or recall North Dakota’s Republican senator Gerald Nye from the 1930s, chairman of the Senate Munitions Investigating Subcommittee. A rustic progressive who advocated the nationalization of what he considered troublesome industries, he also was a tireless friend to thousands of German-born Dakota farmers still angry about America’s role in the Great War. Nye wanted the country to avoid any further foreign conflicts, and so he attacked the forces he viewed as promoters of war—the big arms manufacturers, which he called “merchants of death,” and international bankers who financed the purchase of armaments and then, as Nye viewed it, fomented war to ensure a return on their investments.

Nye’s headline-grabbing hearings fostered the Neutrality Act of 1935, which placed America on the sidelines of all international conflicts. The legislation required the president to proclaim the existence of any foreign wars and prohibited American vessels from carrying arms to or for belligerents in such wars. It was popular at the time largely because of widespread lingering feelings among Americans that the World War I adventure had been ill-conceived. Whatever Nye’s contemporaries may have thought of his legislation or the thinking behind it, no one could doubt that this driven politician intended to wield all the power that the Constitution bestowed upon him as a member of the Senate.

Consider also Missouri’s Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton, who served his state and party from 1821 to 1851—and demonstrated throughout those three decades a fierce independence tied to a zest for political pugilism. Although an early political ally of President James K. Polk, Benton balked when Polk sought from Congress authorization for war with Mexico that could include an invasion of the southern neighbor. He maneuvered cleverly in the Senate in opposition to Polk’s interests and threatened to unleash a full-bore opposition campaign, which could have emboldened the Whig opposition and destroyed the president’s war resolution. In the end he came around, but only after his good friend, Francis Blair, warned that opposition to the war could render him a “ruined man.”

What these men had in common was that they mattered. And they mattered because they were willing to employ as much legislative power as they could muster to influence the big national debate before the country—and thus influence the course of events. Such politicians have nearly always emerged whenever the big guns of the American military began to roar in earnest.

Until recently. Now we have a president who declares in word and deed that war decisions, as artificially defined by him as something short of actual war, are exclusively within his constitutional domain. And we have a Congress that shows no serious inclination to challenge that claim of prerogative and power. This is a very serious—and potentially calamitous—development in American history.

This is not to say that men such as Fulbright, Nye and Benton—and many more who followed their path—were entirely correct in their view of foreign policy and the war decisions of their time. But they served the highly valuable purpose of ensuring that matters of war and peace would get serious attention, generate robust debate, and thus enlighten the American people about the geopolitical stakes involved. That’s what’s missing today.