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Straight talk from Obama on Syria and the U.S. Constitution

The president’s address on Syria Saturday was straightest talk I have heard from him or any other major political figure in a long time.

President Barack Obama speaking about the situation in Syria at a Saturday press conference in the Rose Garden as Vice President Joe Biden looks on.
REUTERS/Mike Theiler

That was the straightest talk I have heard from President Obama or any other major political figure in a long time.

Obama’s comments on Syria Saturday were short and to the point. He is convicting the Assad government of using chemical weapons to murder men and women and children. He basically swept aside any ambiguity that others may want to raise about whether the evidence is clear. It is clear, Obama said, and he is making a classified document available to members of Congress to back that up.

He has decided that this violation of international norms cannot go unpunished. He favors U.S. action that he believes will punish Assad, degrade Syrian capabilities for further use of chemical weapons, and deter other bad actors on the world stage who otherwise might think they can use chemical or biological weapons and not suffer any consequences.

With or without allies, the United States should take that action, Obama said. (The quote: “I am prepared to make that order.”) Until Saturday, although it seemed obvious that Obama’s thinking was heading in this direction, he said every time he spoke publicly that he had not yet made a decision. Now he has.

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I’ve been underwhelmed by several recent Obama speeches. He seemed tired and the speeches wandered. This wasn’t really a speech. It lasted just 10 minutes. But he said what he came to say.

Seeking congressional action

But he wants Congress to authorize it. That was the big news. The leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress have agreed to hold a debate on such an authorization as soon as Congress reconvenes from its current recess (currently scheduled for Sept. 9). “The country will be stronger if we take this course,” Obama said, meaning to debate a resolution authorizing military action. He invoked Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (without mentioning ol’ Abe, nor the origin of the phrase—Lincoln’s brief remarks at Gettysburg in 1863).

The exception to all of the clarity I celebrated in the first paragraph was the answer he did not give to the one question shouted to him by a reporter as he walked away from the podium: “Will you go ahead if Congress disapproves?”

Until we know the answer to that, we can’t know how seriously Obama meant all the stuff in the middle about constitutional government. In fact, if you study the full text of Obama’s remarks, it’s hard not to believe that he went out of his way to avoid shedding too much light on his answer to the reporter’s shouted question.

After saying “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” Obama subsequently said: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” Hmmmm. Angels will soon be dancing on constitutional pins over the tension between those two sentences.

As a U.S. Constitution guy, I have to say that the constitutional understanding of the war powers have been a dead letter for about a century. The Constitution, in its preamble, establishes that one of the purposes of the government is to “provide for the common defense.” (Note the word is “defense,” but has come to mean anything military.) Article I gives Congress the power to declare war. Article II appoints the president as commander in chief of the armed forces.

I believe the clear understanding was that the United States (which the Framers did not envision as possessing a large standing military but which would rely primarily on state militias that could be called into national service when necessary for national defense) would be at peace with the rest of the world except when Congress declared war, which would activate, or at least elevate the president’s commander-in-chief powers.

The Framers could naturally not imagine a modern superpower, engaged in an almost perpetual state of semi-war. That is what we have become and the Constitution has never been amended to reflect it, so we have a pastiche of semi-constitutional practices.

Congress has not actually literally “declared” a war since Pearl Harbor. Since then, U.S. forces have engaged in dozens of military actions (in other words, “wars.”) Several of those actions were authorized in advance by a congressional vote that used language other than “declare war.” Perhaps the semantics are unimportant in those cases.

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But presidents have taken dozens of other military actions with no advance congressional authorization at all. For all of these reasons, we have no working understanding of whether and when the president needs advance approval from Congress to start a war (or, in the current Syrian case, join a war that is already in progress, although not exactly join the war. More like drop in, blow up some things, make a statement, and go back to the sideline.)

Why do it? Obama has called on Assad to leave, but hasn’t made it a goal of U.S. policy to bring that about, nor should we take his desire to take military action as designed to bring about Assad’s demise. If we take him at his word, he is still trying not to get (at least not very) involved in the Syrian civil war. America is war-weary, Obama said, and alluded to his goal of ending the two wars he inherited from his predecessor.

So why do it? Obama did allude (fairly vaguely) to his previous (perhaps regretted) comment about the “red line” that would be crossed if Assad used chemical weapons. The allusion went like this: “Now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say.”

Bigger justification

But the bigger justification is about the importance of the general commitment not to tolerate the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons by anyone. As a matter of history, this is a bit awkward, since the United States is the only nation ever to drop an atomic weapon (two, actually) on civilian targets, and used chemical weapons (I consider napalm a chemical weapon) as recently as the Vietnam War.

Obama made no reference to these problems. And he didn’t do much to explain exactly who elected the United States as the enforcer of “international norms.” In theory, that should perhaps be the job of the United Nations, but Obama did mention that in practice, with two Syrian allies holding veto power on the U.N. Security Council, that idea was a path to nowhere.

True, but that doesn’t address the question of how or why one nation appoints itself the enforcer, by cruise missile, of something as amorphous as international norms. He didn’t ignore the question, but addressed it with the kind of non-answer that pretty much all presidents turn to on such occasions. It went like this:

We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations. We aren’t perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities.

I won’t attempt a political analysis of the debate that will soon ensue in Congress except to note that, unlike most things these days, it will not break down on pure party lines. Democrats will probably divide between peaceniks, liberal hawks and those who believe they should support a president of their own party. Republicans will divide between McCainiac hawks and neocons, whom I suspect will support the resolution, Rand Paulish libertarian non-interventionists, whom I expect to oppose it, and Republicans who will vote against anything that Obama is for.

The debate should be interesting.