Obama’s move is a precedent in precedent-breaking, but what does it mean for US foreign policy?
By: Grant Rumley
Editor’s note: this article previously ran in I24News on 5 Sep 2013, you can view it here.
With the arrival of the news of the chemical weapons attack in Syria, many in Washington, DC began clamoring for intervention. The Obama administration—which for months has laid out and subsequently ignored varying “red lines” for action in Syria—began upping the rhetoric, ostensibly for a strike of some sort on the regime. A strike of some nature seemed likely to occur within days. Then, with little warning, Obama backed away from a potential attack, instead shifting the onus for an unpopular issue to an unpopular body: Congress.
It was a precedent of precedent-breaking. Congress, of course, has constitutional authority over the armed forces, but it is also charged with declaring wars on other nations. Since 1945, however, the US has been involved in a number of wars or conflicts, none of which have been fully declared by Congress. Since World War Two, presidents have expanded their executive authority in intervening overseas, opting to seek broad-based legislative support instead of congressional declarations of war.
The credit for the rise in executive power, however, cannot be placed squarely on each successive president since 1945. Congress has been a somewhat willing partner in enhancing American military force abroad. Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Congress authorized the president to: “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” A broad charge, to be sure, but one that was the legal backdrop for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the run-up to the current debate over Syria, members of Congress were openly calling for this broad-based authorization to be revisited. The key differentiator here is that the post-9/11 congressional authorization stated that the president was authorized to respond when an attack had been made on the US, or an imminent danger was suspected. This is in accordance with the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which sought to check the president’s power to declare war. With Syria, there was no such case to be made. In the days before Obama’s decision, Representatives Walter Jones (R-NC) and John Garamendi (D-CA) released a bipartisan letter urging the president to return the balance of power:
“As stated in the War Powers Resolution of 1973, absent a Congressional declaration of war or authorization for the use of military force, the President as Commander-in-Chief has constitutional power to engage the US armed forces in hostilities only in the case of a national emergency created by an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces, as none of these criteria have been met, we believe it is Congress’s right and responsibility to be fully briefed on any potential plans to engage in military action in Syria, to assess whether such an intervention is in the national security interest of the United States and our allies, and to withhold or grant authorization for the use of military force based on this assessment.”
In other words: this is Congress’s issue.
And Obama responded.
In deferring to Congress, Obama made a shrewd political move, a move that in and of itself garnered the president near unanimous praise from a typically antagonistic Congress. (The lone exception here is Congressman Peter King (R-NY) who lambasted Obama for curtailing executive power, and criticized his own party leadership for supporting the move.)
The net positive for Obama, then, is that it puts the prospective, and seemingly inevitable, setbacks in Syria on Congress’s shoulders. And while Congress remains skeptical on any action in Syria, members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee are confident their resolution on Syria, which calls for a 90-day intervention and no boots on the ground, will pass in Congress when it returns from recess. The political precedent, however, is liable to change executive influence over foreign policy for the foreseeable future. In deferring to Congress on Syria, Obama has essentially handicapped himself for all future low-intensity conflicts, especially in the Middle East. If Israel wishes to pre-empt an Iranian nuclear development program with a coordinated air-strike, will Obama have to go to congress for a weeklong debate prior to? And what of the increased drone campaign, will that need congressional authorization as well? How will the US’s regional allies, such as Israel, respond when something as transparent and loud as a congressional debate is needed for future military involvement? For the president who has actively tried to expand executive influence, the move is liable to have serious repercussions in how foreign policy is crafted in his White House.
Grant Rumley is the Editor in Chief of the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
Photo credit: Flickr Commons/Joint Chiefs of Staff.