The final day of August 2013 marked an earthshaking change to U.S. foreign policy. President Obama declared his belief that the Syrian regime is criminal in its use of chemical weapons on its own people. But also, he said, the weight and seriousness of events deserves the consideration of the people’s representatives in Congress.
No special session of Congress has been ordered by the President. When Congress returns to session on September 9 (according to its own time schedule), it must discuss, approve, or reject an attack on Syria in punishment for Syria’s proven violation of international norms.
The United States has not declared war since December 8, 1941, but this has not deterred Republican and Democratic administrations from military actions in Korea, Viet Nam, the former Yugoslavia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many more places around the world with more limited expeditions over the years.
No reasonable individual argues with the President’s responsibility and authority to defend American interests and those of its treaty allies against outside threats. But a wider perception of American responsibility has grown up in the world since the close of World War II.
Somehow the U.S. military has inherited the mission of defending all disinherited peoples. Regardless of the worthiness of the mission, why should all the world’s burdens of blood and treasure fall to America alone? Congress should decide if it wants to assume this extraordinary police responsibility for outlaw regimes and terrorist groups worldwide.
President Obama has been the unending target of attacks from legislative and political opponents. In response, he has now told the Congress what he thinks and has asked for Congressional advice and consent before committing the country to a violent course of action. Many watchers have suggested that this approach is a risky roll of the dice and diminishes the power of the Presidency.
The elected members of the Congress have wanted a bigger say in U.S. foreign policy. President Obama has now publicly requested Congress’s consideration and assent on this important issue. Is the Presidency diminished? Perhaps… but Congress is returned by this action to its historical, constitutional role of authorizing non-emergent foreign military adventures.
No longer can Congress afford to function as a collegiate debating society devolving into gridlock. It now must be accountable and take the responsibility for its actions or lack thereof.
And the rest of the world will come to know that it has to convince many more than just one U.S. elected official in order to be rescued from threats of their own creation.
Is requesting advice before acting a risk for this President? Or is this a reasonable way out of an untenable situation? Several months ago, President Obama drew a red line in the sand on chemical weapons. Obama has now declared his willingness to step over the line and take action. Congress has demanded a say.
Watch out Congress! Be careful what you demand! You will be held responsible at the ballot box for your actions or lack thereof. The President may have crafted a calmer harbor out of a roiling sea of unreasonable rhetoric. Some freedom of executive action may have been ceded. The President may not absolutely care. Nor may we... the government’s ultimate bosses.