Congress wants in on the decisionmaking about Syria.
House Speaker John Boehner, in a letter submitted to the White House Wednesday afternoon, asked that President Obama provide his reasoning and goals for military action in Syria before engaging there. Speaker Boehner wants to be informed of the potential costs involved and the legal justification for moving ahead without a congressional resolution.
"[I]t is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action ... will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy," he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, some 116 House members – 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats – sent a separate plea to Mr. Obama seeking congressional authorization for any steps toward retaliation against a Syrian leadership that allegedly used chemical weapons on its own citizens.
The moves mark heightening tensions between the administration and Congress, a showdown of sorts that only reinforces the near-constant friction that exists between the White House and the GOP-led House. Now, even issues of international importance are not getting outside the usually fractious conversations about health-care reform, immigration, and guns that have dominated much of Obama’s time in office.
On the one hand, given how sour the relationships, it’s hard to imagine that Boehner and his leadership team would get on board with anything Obama aims to accomplish – with or without evidence – in an expeditious fashion. But then again, for the White House to take military action in an unstable country in a fraught region without congressional support leaves Obama going it all alone – and the US government was not devised so that the president should be a solo actor. Checks and balances between the branches are designed to help produce good decisionmaking.
Politically as well, the president invites enormous criticism if lives are lost, costs skyrocket, or the policy embarked upon is an overall dud. And legally, well, there’s a case to be made that Boehner’s view represents a historic norm: Typically, the president consults Congress on matters of war.
No one can say yet what being pulled into a conflict-ridden Syria might involve. Or how short- or long-term the commitment might be, regardless of intentions at the outset. The administration aims, at this point, not to become entrenched in a warlike situation there or war itself. Obama has spent his time in office pulling the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan; more fighting was not on his agenda.
With Iranian and Russian leaders cautioning against US intervention, however, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suggesting his nation will retaliate, any American military strike, no matter how limited in scope, could reverberate well beyond that country’s borders.
Congress is in recess until Sept. 9. But urgency could suggest the need for a special session. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament to talk through his country’s options in Syria. He and Obama have been in close touch in recent days. France is also weighing options.
Senior administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have briefed members of Congress and will hold another session Thursday.
“The President continues to review options with his national-security team, and senior Administration officials from the White House, State Department, Defense Department and Intelligence Community are continuing to reach out to bipartisan House and Senate leadership, leadership of the relevant committees, and other members of Congress,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said after Boehner’s letter was circulated. “The views of the Congress are important to this process, so we will be continuing to engage with them as the President reaches a decision on the appropriate U.S. response.”
Even though the White House has pledged to provide congressional leaders with a classified report – as well as submitting a nonclassified version to the public – lawmakers want more information and to provide more input. And many are advising that they deserve to be part of the process.
"Absent an imminent threat to United States national security, the U.S. should not be engaged in military action without Congressional approval," Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia said in a statement.
Rep. Ted Poe (R) of Texas believes that a unilateral presidential decision would violate the War Powers Resolution, which passed over President Nixon’s veto in 1973. Syria’s instability produces no imminent threat to America, he adds.
“According to the Constitution, it is Congress, and Congress alone, that has the power to declare war,” Representative Poe writes on Fox News’s website. “James Madison said, ‘The Constitution supposes what history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it.’ Madison was right on the money.”
Historically, though, disagreements have arisen about the intent of this resolution, and several presidents have acted to circumvent its requirements. For example, in the 1990s President Clinton used armed forces for airstrikes in Bosnia and Kosovo, dodging the requirements of the resolution. He reported to Congress but did not seek its full endorsement. Some members of Congress challenged Mr. Clinton unsuccessfully in court. Clinton at the time suggested the War Powers Resolution was “constitutionally defective.”
In 2011, the Obama administration argued that limited intervention in the Libyan civil conflict also did not fall under the scope of the War Powers Resolution. In a report provided to lawmakers at the time, the White House described the NATO-led mission as not involving sustained fighting, exchanges with hostile forces, or ground troops. At the time, Boehner complained that the effort went beyond the 60-day window for unauthorized engagement that is specified in the resolution. Other members filed a lawsuit requiring the US to pull out because Congress failed to authorize engagement; it was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge.
The White House stood its ground, meanwhile, citing a supporting role.
Concerning Syria, Obama has put himself in a tough spot, Nicholas Kristof suggests in Thursday’s New York Times. The president declined to arm rebels earlier because he “feared being dragged into the conflict.” But with 100,000 killed, the latest news of a chemical attack, and the consequences of a destabilized Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, Obama has set himself up to have to do something.
“Since President Obama established a 'red line' about chemical weapons use, his credibility has been at stake: he can’t just whimper and back down,” Mr. Kristof writes.
And perhaps this means that in this urgent situation, Obama can’t get mired in a difficult conversation with a difficult Congress. Or conversely, does it suggest all the more that he work with the Congress he has?