Strange Politics: Congress begins debate on Syria intervention

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey were questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Image by Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey were questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Image by Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Congress may not officially return from its recess until next Monday, but the debate over whether the United States should intervene militarily in Syria has already begun. Already, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has heard testimony from President Obama’s senior aides about what sort of military action is being proposed. As of press time, both Congressional Democrats and Republicans are divided on the issue; you can follow updates on where your Senators stand here and where your Representatives stand here. According to both a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and a joint ABC News/Washington Post survey, most Americans oppose a strike against Syria. However, President Obama insists that a strike is necessary after chemical weapons killed 355 people and sent 3,300 more to the hospital. According to the President, it isn’t just about backing up his own words last year when he called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would prompt a U.S. response. Speaking in Sweden, he said “My credibility is not on the line, the international community’s credibility is on the line… governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.”

The United States claims that it has proof the chemical attack was committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and wants to launch a carefully-targeted missile strike against weapons systems that could deliver a chemical weapons payload, such as artillery units, rocket launchers, and aircraft. Launching missiles at the places where the chemical weapons are manufactured and stored has been deemed too dangerous, as doing so could disperse the chemical agents into the surrounding area. For its part, al-Assad’s regime claims that the chemical attack was actually carried out by rebel forces to gain sympathy from the West and its allies and prompt a strike against the regime.

Threats of an attack have divided not only Americans, but also the international community. Russia and China, both supporters of al-Assad’s regime, have publicly opposed any outside military intervention, claiming the U.S. is jumping to conclusions and that the fallout from a U.S. strike would be far worse for Syria and the rest of the Middle East. Other nations that oppose a strike include Germany, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. However, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have all said they would support and assist the U.S. should we decide to attack. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron pushed for military action, but in a very close vote, Parliament decided against it, so if a strike happens the UK will be sitting it out.

All of this wrangling, however, does beg some obvious questions. For example, by publicly debating, any would-be strike will have lost the element of surprise. Wouldn’t this hurt the chances of any strike’s success? According to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the answer is no, waiting won’t jeopardize the mission.

What about the other countries that say they are ready to strike? Why are they waiting for us to take the lead, instead of going ahead and carrying a strike on their own? Well, that’s where the complications of international politics come in.

Almost every country in the world is a member of the United Nations. According to the UN’s charter, its members can’t go to war except in self-defense or if the UN Security Council specifically authorizes military action to respond to a threat against international peace and security. Since both Russia and China have the power to veto any decision the UN Security Council makes, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to happen in this case. However, there is an alternative school of thought among international law experts, who say that military action to prevent crimes against humanity are perfectly legitimate. They point to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in the late 1990s, which didn’t have the approval of the UN Security Council, but when Russia tried to have it declared illegal, they failed, with the UN basically accepting NATO’s justification that it was trying to stop ethnic cleansing. Not everyone accepts this interpretation, and experts debate the legality of any strike against Syria.

All of this, though, is rather academic, because international law isn’t a “law” in the sense that we use it every day. It’s more like the guidelines and rules countries voluntarily agree to abide by so that they can have peace, encourage trade, and co-operate in key areas like environmental protection, fighting criminals and terrorists, and stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You can’t really punish a nation for breaking international law except by going to war with it. There is no world government or mechanism to enforce international law; a country that is powerful enough that you don’t want to go to war with it, or an ally of such a country, could ignore international law whenever they believe they are justified in doing so. A country such as the United States, which invaded Iraq in 2003 even though the war’s critics said it was illegal for it to do so, and gives massive taxpayer subsidies to the U.S. cotton industry to keep cotton prices cheap in direct violation of the World Trade Organization’s free-trade rules.

If the United States leads the way in a military intervention against Syria, it will give such an attack a sense of legitimacy and protect any U.S. allies that participate from some of the backlash, if there is any.

Of course, perhaps one of the biggest questions of all is, why is Congress debating the merits of striking Syria? Can’t the President just order the Air Force and Navy to fire the missiles?

Well, he can if he wants to. Sort of.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but gives the President command of the armed forces. This division of powers may have been meant as a means to keep either branch from becoming too powerful, but in practice it has meant that the United States can be at war in every real sense without being “officially” at war. In fact, only five wars in U.S. history were official, declared wars: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and both World Wars.

The President can, and has, sent U.S. troops into combat without Congressional approval. This was the case with the Civil War, most of the wars with Native Americans in the western frontier, the Korean War, and the Persian Gulf War. Of course, Congress isn’t exactly a fan of this practice, so in 1973 they passed the “War Powers Resolution”, which states that if the President sends U.S. troops into combat, he must notify Congress within 48 hours, and any military action that is going to last more than 60 days must have Congressional approval. So, if President Obama wanted, and he could somehow guarantee that the U.S.-led strike against Syria would last less than 60 days, he could just give the order.

That isn’t what he is doing, of course. Even though most of his aides wanted to attack Syria right away, Obama decided on Friday to give Congress a say in the matter. According to the Daily Caller, the decision to put the matter before Congress is in response to the knowledge that an attack would be unpopular, and the President’s desire to change minds and build support. Would this mean a declaration of war against Syria? No, actually: the President is only asking for authorization for a small-scale strike that will not include “boots on the ground”. For Congress to authorize military action without formally declaring war also has plenty of precedent, dating as far back as 1798, when Congress authorized President John Adams to send the U.S. Navy against French ships on the high seas.

So, in summary, Syria, our allies, and the rest of the world are waiting for a divided and hesitant U.S. Congress to decide on whether the U.S. military will respond to the recent chemical attack in Syria, because the President decided to leave the decision up to them even though he could order U.S. forces to strike without their approval, and it is unclear whether any strike undertaken by the U.S. and its allies would be legal under international law, which isn’t really a law at all. Talk about some Strange Politics.

2 Responses to Strange Politics: Congress begins debate on Syria intervention

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