Now that President Obama has decided to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria — finally — lawmakers have their work cut out for them: Ask the right questions, obtain more public disclosure regarding the Syrian regime’s responsibility, and pass a resolution that stops short of giving the Pentagon a blank check.
For decades, going back to the turbulent Vietnam era, critics have complained that ambitious presidents have ignored Congress’ war-making powers under the U.S. Constitution. Lawmakers have often been ignored when it comes to deploying U.S. military power abroad. Case in point: The 2011 air strike in Libya. The action took place before the House could vote.
For those who don’t like this notion of an “imperial presidency” — that includes us — the decision on Syria is a welcome chance for legislators to show that they deserve to be consulted. Mr. Obama appeared to be dithering — first suggesting he was going to order a unilateral strike, then changing course to ask for congressional approval. Ultimately, however, he came down on the right side.
Formal declarations of war may be considered obsolete, but Congress still has a significant role to play in deciding when the United States should exercise military force — and should always insist on being heard. That requires avoiding the partisan gridlock that has made a mess of Washington.
In this case, fortunately, lawmakers have gotten off on the right foot, with Republican House Speaker John Boehner joining Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in supporting military action.
The administration has a big hurdle to overcome: convincing Congress — and the American public — that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is indeed to blame for the mass slaughter of hundreds of civilians last month, using banned chemical weapons like sarin gas.
Assad is, of course, the prime suspect. He has shown no mercy in destroying entire neighborhoods and villages full of civilians with lethal weaponry. He will likely stop at nothing in order to maintain himself in power.
Still, the administration must make a strong case showing the regime’s involvement. That is the only way to persuade a skeptical American public with painful memories of nonexistent WMDs in Iraq — not to mention reluctant allies overseas — that punishing Syria is the right thing to do.
As Secretary of State John Kerry testified on Wednesday, a military strike would hold the Assad regime accountable. Failure to act, on the other hand, would be “a grant of impunity.”
Rogue regimes, like North Korea and Iran, would be emboldened, and countries eager for U.S. leadership would be discouraged. U.S. credibility would be undermined. International agreements, like the one against the use of chemical weapons, would lose their worth.
Congress has to weigh these stakes as it decides on the use of military force, but it should not limit itself to a simple Yes or No.
The resolution proposed by the White House says: “The president is authorized to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary.” That’s too broad. Congress should make clear that putting boots on the ground is off-limits and that any action must be of limited scope and duration.
Lawmakers can’t micromanage a war, but they should embrace this moment to show that they can play a responsible role in decisions involving war. In a democracy, an “imperial presidency” should have limits.