Has anyone read the United States Constitution lately? Whether one chooses to support the President and his foreign policy decision or not, there are two Constitutional considerations to bear in mind. Article II; section 2 of the United States Constitution provides that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;…”.
The second consideration is less directly asserted. That is, Article II begins by establishing that “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America…”. By tradition, the President of the United States, as the Chief Executive of our government, establishes the foreign policies of this nation. There is nothing that constrains an action by the President in his role as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to enforce those policies, other than to the extent that the President must secure the ratification by Congress for any treaties that he may have negotiated according to Article II; section 2: “He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur;…”. In fact, the Constitution never addresses an obligation for a “declaration of war” before undertaking any military action.
The powers of a United States President go further in the same section that addresses the obligation of the President to seek the advice of Congress in Article II; section 3: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper;…”
In short, President Obama has chosen to consult Congress regarding an action of enforcement of his foreign policy position that Sarin gas may not be used in the Syrian Civil War and that this would draw a red line to would incur consequences. Whether you liked that bravura moral policy stance then or now makes little difference. The President asserted a position and has an obligation to ensure a strong and believable foreign policy position. Our nation’s word must have credibility in the community of nations, particularly with those likely to violate international standards of humane conduct.
The debate in Congress, as reported in the public media, may lead some to believe that Congress has the authority to determine the President’s actions in this matter. In truth, our Congress may support the President’s foreign policy stance that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot use Sarin gas to cause the deaths of thousands of non-combatant of his own nation, including hundreds of children. Or they may choose to undermine the credibility of our President, his foreign policy and our nation by voting down a punitive strike against Syria.
Interestingly Senator John McCain, a political foe of President Obama seems to get it. He does not like the idea of a limited strike against Syria. He asserted in a September 1, 2013 Face the Nation interview that President Obama has that power to act and should have done so without hesitation.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain has already made the same mistake that President Obama has embarked upon. In some idealistic impulse to favor the chaos of democracy, he put the matter of participation in a punitive action against the Syrian regime to a vote and lost. Like President Obama, he had no legal or Constitutional obligation to do so. This places foreign policy principles in the hands of the war-weary vagaries of isolationists, oppositional politicians and libertarians who believe in leaving the world to its own devices unless self-interest is directly at stake. If Winston Churchill had taken that posture when Hitler’s Blitzkrieg invaded Poland, we would have a very different world today; a world of genocide and oppression. National leadership, where are you?