28 June 2012
If Congressional Hawks Want Obama to Intervene in Syria They Should First Think about Congress’s Role in Initiating Military Interventions
As the violence in Syria has worsened, Republican challenger Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of a “lack of leadership” while Senator John McCain has described the Administration’s current policy as “shameful” and has openly called for a more aggressive policy that would include American military intervention in protecting civilian safe havens. While support for intervention is not unified in Congress, increasing violence, the vocal demands for greater American involvement, and the complexities of election year politics will not in themselves make intervention more likely but could increase the volume of the congressional debate and turn the violence in Syria into a referendum on President Obama’s foreign policy.
The question of whether a more aggressive policy towards Syria would be more effective is beyond the scope of this piece; there are strong arguments for either case. But if congressional hawks are willing to accuse the President of weak leadership or a shameful policy they ignore the fact that they themselves could authorize the President to use military force in Syria, if only Congress was willing to do so. Not doing so not only opens the hawks to accusations of hypocrisy, but it also continues to undermine Congress’s neglected war powers.
The options available to Congress are more than its power to issue formal declarations of war, and even this has not been used since World War II (in fact, of the more than 200 uses of force overseas, a declaration of war was issued only eleven times). Statutory power is shared between the Executive and Legislative branches and covers issues such as funding or the power to deploy forces into hostile situations short of war, but which may still have the result of engaging in foreign hostilities. The War Powers Resolution sought to clarify the delineation of power between the Executive and Legislative branches, namely by granting Congress a role larger than it thought it had following the Korean War and Vietnam War. In essence, the Resolution granted the Executive branch the power to initiate conflict, recognizing the need for rapid decision-making in modern conflicts, but required the President to consult with Congress, offer reports, and to withdraw the forces after 60 days if Congress has failed to pass legislation authorizing the deployment.
Certain loopholes in the War Powers Resolution have meant that its practical effects have been underwhelming: perfunctory reports and ex post consultations, meaning that Congress’s role in statutory war powers is still ambiguous and in need of a clearer definition. So far, none has been forthcoming, though members are often willing to express opinions rather than resolve the outstanding issues. For example, Congress’s role could include passing an “affirmative measure” that signals its acquiescence to military deployment, either before or after the deployment takes place. The problem for the hawks is that such steps would be politically unfeasible in an election year and would require the hawks to build a majority for a policy (in this case, intervention in Syria) that currently has only tepid support and would require other members of Congress to take positions on a vote where it could be more politically beneficial for them to take a policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
That war powers are subservient to political questions is not surprising, but in this case the issue of Congress’s role in the use of military force needs a more serious examination than political games will allow. The fact that members of Congress are willing to call for military intervention while not concurrently working to resolve Congress’s role in such interventions is not only hypocritical but also undermines what is left of the existing rules and guarantees that the legality of future interventions will be undermined and the rules used as political pawns. This is not to argue that Congress should be more or less acquiescent to military interventions, but simply that it should be more involved than it currently is or currently seems willing to be. Historical practice and legislative fixes like the War Powers Resolution have not resolved issues that are ambiguous but absolutely fundamental to how the government should work.
The fact that the hawks will probably not provide the President with explicit statutory authority also allows them to play a cynical double-game by demanding military intervention and then accusing the President of circumventing Congress once he does. If the hawks are so serious about an aggressive policy towards Syria they should begin by supplying the President with the requisite statutory authority to do so and if they do not make an effort to that then it will be clear that their issues with the President have more to do with politics than policy. It is unfortunate that members of Congress could willingly undermine the role of their own institution to win political points.