The tea leaves aren’t easy to read, but at this point Congress appears to be inching reluctantly towards granting President Obama some manner of authorization to bomb Syria. But even as they come closer to authorizing acts of war, our elected representatives seem to be trying to evade the harsh truth about what they are doing:
The vote of 10 to 7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid bare the complicated political crosscurrents raised by military intervention in Syria. Two liberal Democrats voted against the resolution, one voted present and three Republicans voted for it. The Senate panel’s action capped a day of fierce debate in both houses of Congress that indicated there is a widespread impulse to respond to the deadly chemical weapons attack but deep divisions over how much latitude the president should have to do so.
Congress should authorize but not micro-manage the use of force. Once we are at war, whether de jure or de facto, a legislative body by its nature is incapable of managing the military decisions that have to be made. Responses to our actions by the enemy can put the Commander in Chief and US forces in situations where rapid and decisive action is necessary either to achieve the goals for which force was authorized in the first place or to protect US forces under attack.
As a matter of fact, once hostilities begin, the president’s powers as Commander in Chief would allow him to set aside congressional restrictions that conflicted with his military duties to protect US forces. The Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war but not to prescribe the methods or strategies of war. If, for example, during World War Two Congress had permitted US forces to invade Europe but forbidden them to cross the Rhine, and German troops were firing on US forces across that river and mounting attacks, FDR would have been totally justified in sending General Patton over the river. Under his war powers, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, an act that otherwise would have required a constitutional amendment.
The degree to which the current debate is over fine tuning the limits of action is a powerful illustration of the lack of understanding on the part of our political class about the nature of war. War is not a waiter in a cafe from whom you can order a dish on the menu—the chicken sandwich, please, on whole grain but with no mayo. Similarly, you can’t order a war to be composed only of limited strikes against Syria with no ground troops, not to last longer than x number of days, because it is impossible to legislate the enemy’s response.
Congress is snatching for fig leaves that will minimize electoral risks to its members, and the administration, desperate for a positive vote that will extricate it from the humiliating and completely unnecessary predicament in which its own rash statements have enmeshed it, is conniving in congressional self-deception. But we should be very clear: if you vote for a war, you will have to take the war that you get, not the beautiful imaginary war you have designed in your clever, ivy-educated, IR-theory stuffed head.
Syria is not the most formidable adversary this country has ever taken on, but its unconventional allies like Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have capacities which we do not fully know, and it is not clear what form the support of Russia and Iran for Assad might take. If Congress votes for a designer war and the actual war then veers into a more dangerous direction, it cannot then prevent the Commander in Chief from responding to military realities.
Congress must also understand that the polite fictions with which it hopes to console the voters back home are nonsensical fabrications. Bombing Syria is by any standard of international law an act of war. It may well be justified either under international law or just war theory, but that’s another argument. This is war, and once you are at war you cannot stop fighting just because you are bored with it and want to change the channel and watch another show.
Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.
There are better arguments against either of these choices than for them; this is truly a case of the lesser of two evils rather than a choice for any positive good. When making difficult choices it is more necessary than ever to keep a clear head and to face facts, even unappetizing ones, squarely. To vote for a designer war is fatheaded foolishness; your choice is binary. War or not-war.
The question that Congress is called on to answer is a simple one: have relations between the government of the United States and the government of Syria reached the point that violence is the language in which the United States must now speak?
We can hope that Syria will tamely accept a thrashing. But hope is not a strategy and the enemy gets a vote as to what happens next.
Congress, though, does not get another vote. If, for example, following US attacks on Syria, Hezbollah bases with Iranian advisors fire missiles that take out a US ship, Congress doesn’t get to vote on whether the US shoots back to take out other missile bases that threaten the security of our naval forces. That’s a decision the Commander in Chief will have to take on his own, based on pressing military considerations that cannot wait to allow Congress to posture and position itself and craft disingenuous resolutions about.
A declaration of war, even when euphemistically called an ‘authorization to use military force’ against a sovereign government, is a serious thing. That can be hard for Washington, a place filled with deeply unserious people, to grasp. It grants very broad powers to the executive on the presumption that the country faces a serious threat to its security or its vital interests. War is an even more serious thing than a declaration. It has its own logic, its own nature, its own unpredictable consequences.
Congress authorized war in Iraq in the manner of a patron ordering a dish at a restaurant. Then, when the WMD didn’t turn up and the insurgency turned out to be harder to beat and uglier to fight than we hoped, many people in the United States wanted to send the dish back. “Waiter, this war is too spicy! Take it back!” But the war didn’t go away just because we came to think it was an ugly and misguided one.
There are many reasons to believe that a war with Syria will be short and relatively pain free (for those of us not under the bombs or in the ships and planes charged with delivering them). But there are no certainties in life, and especially not in war.
In voting to authorize force against Syria, Congress will be hoping for a short and inconsequential war; Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, however, will all get to vote on what kind of war we actually have.