Why is President Obama, as Rep. Peter King (R-NY) says, abdicating or delegating his authority to Congress regarding military action towards Syria? The answer seems simple, but there may be several underlying tones and changes in diplomatic protocol present. In President Obama’s address on Saturday from the Rose Garden, he referred to the civil unrest in Egypt as a need to abide by the democratic process which is why he was asking Congress to debate and vote on the use of military force against Syria (even though he believes he has the authority to do so without authorization from Congress). Given everything that has happened in Egypt with the fall of their democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, Obama must remain consistent in his stance of a stable democracy abroad and at home.
Stephanie Gaskell from The Atlantic published an article which may point to a change in protocol regarding congressional authorization and unilateral use of force or as Gaskell puts it “no more war unless absolutely necessary.” The last time Congress declared war was in 1941 entering us into World War II. Now, it’s no secret the United States has been involved in several military conflicts since that time. While some presidents such as George H.W. Bush sought congressional authorization to involve the United States in the Iraq conflict in 1991, this president has not been so forthcoming. The drone program alone has stood up against many constitutional and moral attacks given the clandestine nature of the program and its limited oversight.
Now, President Obama does not want to go against Congress, the Constitution, or even the American people. He even stated in his address on Saturday, “Our democracy is stronger when the President and the people’s representatives stand together.” Every president has power grubbed and used every resolution, treaty, or constitutional interpretation imaginable to further their agenda. So the fact that Obama has publically urged Congress to act to allow him to authorize force in Syria despite believing he already has authority to act alone, to me, is merely just a symbol of democratic acknowledgement in a world of political unrest. If Congress decides not to pass a resolution what are President Obama’s choices?
Could President Obama be trying to use Congress as a facade to retreat? Could Congress be used as a scapegoat? While this is highly unlikely, its worth pointing out that the President has certainly backed himself into a corner and military intervention (especially after recent American conflicts and general unrest in the Middle East) is not a popular endeavor. President Obama could use a Congressional vote against passing a resolution to fall back on his original decree. After all, the Administration has made it clear it is not looking for a regime change in Syria but rather to send a message that use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. There is sure to be push back from other nations such as Iran who have already expressed interest in retaliation if the United States strikes Syria. With acts of war growing more unpopular in the world (especially with British Parliament voting against military involvement) President Obama may want to use Congress to his advantage.
It may be an impeachable offense if President Obama acts in lieu of a vote against a resolution given the powers authorized under the Constitution to Congress regarding war declaration.
If Congress votes to pass a resolution, President Obama has no choice but move forward, however, he proclaimed a strike is not urgent and may not strike until as far down the line as a month from now.
It seems as if war power has been pushed farther and farther away from Congress in the last 50 years even after the War Powers Resolution which still requires the president to go through Congress unless “a national emergency [is] created by an attack on the United States or its forces.” The drone program and the CIA have increasingly taken away Congress’s war declaration power, effectively rendering it obsolete. As mentioned earlier, the Constitution grants Congress, not the president, the authority to declare war. However, the President has authorized several “acts of war” as commander-in-chief without permission or authorization from Congress. Over 100 “enemy combatants” (terrorists) have been killed through drone strikes, and Osama bin Laden was killed after President Obama authorized a raid on a compound located in sovereign Pakistan. Congress has been conspicuously absent for the final decisions on the apparent acts of war. Despite additional congressional oversight of the CIA throughout its charter, the program is still relatively clandestine extending beyond the scope of Congress. The agency has become much more militaristic with control of the drone program (although John Brennan, Director of Central Intelligence, has stated in the past he would like to give the drone program to the Defense Department) which may contribute to their $14 billion budget.
As Garrett Epps points out, “A ‘declaration of war’ has always been a specific policy tool…one that many presidents, and Congresses, have chosen not to use. ‘Authorizations,’ by contrast, permit the two branches to agree on limited war aims.” Epps adds an interesting historical context into the two phrases and provides insight into their meaning. For example Alexander Hamilton viewed the military and war as “’a concurrent authority,’ shared between the executive and Congress.” Furthermore, Epps declares that the president can only direct the military but he must ask permission from Congress to do so thereby rendering the military effectively under the control of Congress.
The way in which war is carried out today is far and away more informal than yesteryear. Now militant groups and guerrillas are not afraid to plant explosives in an embassy creating a greater need for hasty military responses. President Obama took a major potential risk handing the fate of intervention in Syria back to Congress – even if it was never his to usurp in the first place – because he may not like the outcome. However, our nation has rules and regulations which somewhere along the line became lost in what some may call “bureaucratic mush.” This is an important step forward in our democracy because it reaffirms our Constitutional democracy which is the oldest in the world. We are a model for the system worldwide and must maintain this important role. Moreover, it is an important step forward for the Obama Presidency and legacy given the harsh opposition he has received from hardline right-wingers because it accents his bipartisanship and desire to compromise. However, his reputation and presidency may be in jeopardy if he decides to go against Congress and intervene in Syria after a failed resolution.