President Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize any action towards Syria is both courageous and correct. He ignored the inevitable scorn he would get from the armchair patriots who believe the U.S. president can dispatch the military anywhere, at any time, for any reason. He reportedly overruled the advice of most of his national security team that wanted to strike Syria without going to Congress. After the British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for authority to join the United States in the Syrian strike, Obama knew the vote in this bitterly divided and dysfunctional Congress would be “a tough sell.”
But he made the right call, responding not only to his constitutional obligation but to the more than 150 legislators from both parties who signed letters calling on the president to seek approval from Congress before taking action. According to polls, a strike on Syria, even in response to the proven use of chemical weapons, is opposed by a plurality of Americans. Neither the United States nor its allies faces any imminent threat from the Syrian regime. If the United States is a constitutional democracy, surely this is a case where the Congress, the people’s representatives, should determine whether the nation gets involved in — as the president put it — “someone else’s war.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.
Now it is time for democracy to work. The administration has begun to detail its case that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people. Members of Congress should probe and test the administration’s evidence, given the credibility gap created by the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq war, not to mention the lies and distortions peddled by the Bush administration to sell that conflict. Congress should also arrange to receive and consider the report of the U.N. inspectors, because their report will be accepted by other members of the international community and will offer clues about those behind the attacks even if the mandate of the inspectors does not cover who was responsible for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
If in fact the Syrian government committed this atrocity, that only opens the question for Congress and the American people. As forceful as the president was in making the decision to go to Congress, his case for striking Syria militarily is far from compelling. The president argues correctly that the international community cannot simply ignore a grotesque violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons — a ban signed by all but five countries. But there are a number of problems with the administration’s conclusion that the United States must enforce the norm against the use of chemicals weapons by military means.
To begin with, the treaty banning chemical weapons does not itself delegate to the United States the authority or the responsibility to make itself policeman, judge, jury and executioner of the response. Second, it follows that any use of military force must be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council after considering the report of U.N. inspectors. Use of force without Security Council approval could itself be a violation of international law.