Congress should lead on Syria

Fri Jun 7, 2013 4:52pm EDT

1 of 3. Bennett Ramberg

Civilians hold up pictures of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and of his father, Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad (R), as they celebrate in Qusair June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rami Bleibel

The American public is hearing it again – the drumbeat for intervention into a foreign land. Now it’s about Syria.

For decades, presidents have dominated the decision-making to commit American forces to battle. But today, as the country approaches another decisive moment, after a decade of problematic wars, perhaps the time has come for another decider, Congress, to enter the picture. The legislature must not just ask the tough questions but assume the leadership role. A novel idea? Not really. After all this is what the Constitution demands. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have led the beat calling for Washington to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria to give the rebels a chance to protect themselves while bringing down the Assad regime.

Two legislators alone, however, do not represent Congress as a body. Yet the senators have helped focus the public debate: Should the United States, which controls the world’s most capable military, step up to prevent the growing slaughter that could spread across the Middle East? Or, is the danger of another quagmire so daunting that Washington should say “no way?”

If Congress endorses the no-fly zone, it must do so with the understanding that bombardment of Syria’s air defenses, aircraft and command and control – the classic method to apply a no-fly zone – may well be required. McCain is also now proposing to repeatedly crater Syrian airfields with stand-off cruise missiles, to prevent launch of government aircraft, while placing Patriot anti-aircraft rockets along the Jordanian and Turkish border to shoot down Assad’s bombers.

These actions would mark a clear act of war. But rather than recoil, Congress should be honest with itself and the American public and issue a clear war declaration as prescribed by the Constitution.

A declaration of war? Yes, this will likely raise eyebrows. For the conventional wisdom is that no country declares war any more. Certainly not the United States, which for decades has turned a blind eye to its own constitutional requirement.

Indeed, it has been more than 70 years since Pearl Harbor and the war declaration that followed. In launching its formal entry into World War II, along with the other four declared wars in American history – the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War and World War I – Washington had responded to attacks by national adversaries on the American homeland, territories or maritime interests.

Contrast those declarations with the meekness Congress has displayed when the country faced wars of choice. Legislators either avoided decision-making; acquiesced to authority that presidents sought and got from international bodies, or issued resolutions that gave the White House qualified leeway to use force.

Do any of these templates provide a path for U.S.-Syria policy? In principal they do. However, there remains a “but…”.

Under the first template, Congress just allows the president to have his way. The result follows more than a century of military interventions – but not major wars – as seen in old newsreels, where the Marines landed serially in the Caribbean, Central America as well as the Middle East (Lebanon).

In 1973, responding to Congress’s failure to properly vet Washington’s plunge into Vietnam, the legislature revisited the issue. But rather than materially curtail presidential authority, it granted the chief executive the unfettered ability to commit force for 60 days. The but: Is this what we want in Syria?

Codification or not, some presidents still sought independent endorsement to validate and legitimize committing forces to battle. But to avoid the risk of a balking Congress and to assure unimpeded freedom of action, presidents instead turned to international organizations. President Harry S. Truman set the example in 1950, when he got the United Nations Security Council to ratify American and allied entry into the Korean War under the U.N. flag. Sixty years later, President Barack Obama relied on the U.N. Security Council, as well as the Arab League, to go into Libya. For Kosovo in 1998, the Clinton administration sought the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s imprimatur.

However, the but here confronts impossibility today in Syria: Both China and Russia would likely stifle a U.N. Security Council resolution and NATO has no gusto for war.

This leaves the congressional “resolution.” The but in this case is the legacy of overreach. Presidents have run with resolutions in directions beyond congressional authorization. In the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, for example, Congress granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the right “to repel” armed attack on U.S. forces and “prevent further aggression” – but not to place hundreds of thousands of troops in Vietnam to wage a nearly decade-long war.

Then after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the 2003 Iraq resolution gave President George W. Bush authority to use armed force “as he determines” to “defend” the United States while “enforc[ing]” Security Council resolutions. The Security Council, however, never endorsed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. By giving the president the ability to defend the United States, Congress never presumed that Washington would plunge into the long sectarian war that followed.

Given these buts, why would a war declaration against Syria be preferable? First, mindful of recent wars gone so badly and Congress’s string of failures to thoroughly vet the risks, a declaration debate’s sobering effects could prompt the legislature – and the country – to question whether it is in the national interest to enter the Syrian conflict.

If the answer is “yes,” lawmakers should say so with unqualified clarity: “The United States hereby declares war on the Syrian Arab Republic.”

If Congress declines, the president should resist the temptation to rely on the ill-conceived War Powers Resolution or his arguable power as commander in chief to go it alone. At least when it comes to wars of choice, the time has come for the people’s representatives, not the White House, to take the lead.