As every schoolboy knows, once you draw a line in the sand, you better be ready to fight anyone who crosses that line.
That, in a nutshell, is the situation President Obama finds himself in vis-à-vis Syria – congressional resolutions notwithstanding.
At this writing, the wording of the resolution that Congress will consider hasn’t been finalized. Among stipulations narrowly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week were a prohibition against putting “boots on the ground” and time limits on for attacking Syria’s military installations.
Congress can attempt to enforce limitations on use of force. Legally, however, the president is commander-in-chief of the U.S. military and, as such, gets to call the shots.
Historically, congressional resolutions have given presidents a green light for intervention but haven’t worked so well as a stop light. Cases in point: The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which President Lyndon Johnson used to up the ante in Vietnam, and the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution, which President George W. Bush cited as basis to invade that nation.
According to the Constitution, only Congress may declare war, but the last time it exercised that power was June 5, 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. In all of the military actions America has engaged in over the past 71 years, including the Korean and Vietnam “wars,” Congress has not seen the necessity of issuing a declaration of war.
Over the veto of President Nixon, Congress did pass The War Powers Resolution of 1973, which provides that the president may send forces into combat abroad only with its approval or when the country either had been attacked or was under serious threat of attack.
Experts in constitutional law question the validity of that resolution, and no president has ever acknowledged its validity. Nevertheless, as a candidate in 2007, Obama seemed to endorse it. He told the Boston Globe: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
That was years before he sent a team into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden.
Convincing Americans that Syria’s alleged gassing of its own people poses a threat to America could be a hard sell. According to polls, most people oppose U.S. intervention in Syria.
It would be ironic if Obama, who twice won the Oval Office by promising to get U.S. troops of out Iraq and Afghanistan, ordered an attack on Syria.
The president can pledge that he won’t put troops in harm’s way, but when has anything ever gone as expected in the Middle East? Remember the Arab Spring?
Some have criticized Obama for focusing on Syria while his domestic agenda is bogged down. With Republicans threatening to withhold approval of the budget unless Obamacare is defunded, why would the president add another shooting match to his plate?
Foreign affairs provide presidents a stage they don’t have to share with Congress. Indeed, debate over Syria gives Obama a wedge to split Republicans who have united against almost everything he hopes to accomplish. House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement that he would support a resolution authorizing action against Syria doesn’t mean he will capitulate on the budget, but it helps drown out the GOP’s unceasing litany of anti-Obama diatribes.
The moral issue is trickier. If there is a case for action against Syria, it hinges on how certain questions are answered.
Will a nation that invaded Iraq on the strength of flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal stand idle in the face of Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve gas against his countrymen?
Given that the U.N. Security Council’s hands are tied by Russia and China, does it fall to the United States alone to punish Syria?
If we don’t retaliate, will Syria and its ally Iran be emboldened to employ more weapons of mass destruction?
And, finally, now that the president of the United States has drawn the line in the sand, how can America not smack the bully that crossed it?
Email former Herald Editor Terry Plumb at firstname.lastname@example.org.