President Obama has asked the Congress for authorization to use military force against Syria to punish Bashar Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons. Yet what he asks of Congress is not easy for it to do, and is perhaps neither necessary nor proper.
In almost every declaration of war it has passed since the War of 1812, Congress has “authorized” the president to “use the whole land and naval force of the United States” to bring the war to a successful conclusion. But Obama insists that what he is calling for is not war, and hence congressional permission is only, as the lawyers say, “precatory” and politically useful, but not necessary.
“I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” Obama said the other day. His secretary of state, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made the same point. John Kerry told his former peers, “What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional.” A limited strike against Syria “doesn’t mean the United States of America is going to war,” he insisted.
But if it isn’t permission to make war they are seeking, why are they before Congress at all? Congress is not in the business of authorizing “military action” by six destroyers and a couple of squadrons of airplanes, at least not normally.
Ronald Reagan did not ask for legislative approval before invading Grenada or bombing Libya. Although Bill Clinton did seek congressional endorsement for our role in NATO’s bombing campaign over Kosovo, he regretted it because the House of Representatives turned him down. He proceeded anyway — the exception proving the rule. By contrast, the authorizations to use military force obtained by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, and by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002, were widely understood as the functional equivalents of declarations of war, directing the president to use as much force (and as much time) as necessary to subdue our enemies.
What Obama is now asking Congress to do is reconcile his own administration’s self-contradictions, to authorize a non-war war that will be strictly limited in duration, means, and ends. Lobbing scores of cruise missiles at another country is not exactly a peaceful act, after all, yet admitting that it is an act of war is politically untenable. So politicians in both parties try to hide behind formulas calling for the use of force “in a limited and tailored manner” and for no longer than 60, or maybe 90, days, with no boots on the ground, and on behalf of international norms against weapons of mass destruction such as poison gas. (Of course, machetes too can be WMDs, given sufficient time and willing hands, as several African states have recently shown.)
Like Bill Clinton in his military adventures in the Balkans, Obama seeks congressional support out of political weakness, not strength. He needs cover, and some political backbone. (At least Clinton had NATO on his side; Obama has only France.) From the president’s perspective, the move has the added advantage of forcing Congress into a quasi-parliamentary role, blessing his policy in advance, whatever that policy may turn out to be, and making legislators, especially Republicans, more blameable than they should be for the details of execution. It blurs the difference between executive and legislative power, rendering it harder for Congress and the people to hold the administration to account.
This isn’t the United Kingdom, though, so conservatives shouldn’t feel they have to cooperate with the president’s parliamentary ploy.
Republicans are understandably divided over his Syria plan. Rather than vote yes or no on its dubious and fluctuating merits, they might take this opportunity to say, in effect, a constitutional “no, thank you.” They might declare: We are willing to accept Obama’s reading of executive power in this instance — to grant, at least provisionally, his constitutional right to respond with limited forces as he sees fit. His Article II powers are his for better or worse; we can neither add to nor detract from them. And so we shall table, as unnecessary and unwise, the resolution before us.
But we also reserve our constitutional right to judge his response as part of his administration’s and his party’s overall foreign policy, and to go to the country with a clear, unsparing evaluation of that policy in 2014 and 2016.