Syria Intervention: Candidate Obama Wouldn't Have Skipped Congress, But President Obama Will


It's almost certain we are standing on the cliff of another military engagement. Speeches have been made, advisers consulted, and the jets have been scrambled. But apparently, it's an obscene or even provocative question to ask: is the president even authorized to commit to military intervention in Syria?

Those who see this question as just an annoyance, an antiquated constitutional stumbling block that unnecessarily hinders action, should listen to the words of candidate, not President Obama. During his 2008 campaign Obama said that "[t]he 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." This principle defended by candidate Obama was ignored by the administration notably in Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya, and now looks to be thrown out the gutter, along with other constitutional protections, in Syria.

Conflict is imminent. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney remarked that "[t]he president believes that this is a grave transgression and it merits a response," answering questions on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in several districts of Damascus, which resulted in the deaths of around 300 people. Several members of Congress have been notified of possible strikes. Military officials have consulted with their counterparts in Europe. Although Carney tried to reassure journalists that "the options that we are considering are not about regime change," which would undeniably involve boots on the ground, the coming of a coordinated strike seems unstoppable. Perhaps we need to take a breath and a step back to get a better picture.

Questions need to be asked, and the constitutional flip-flop is the first. How can intervention be justified when there certainly is no "actual or imminent threat to the nation"? Perhaps the answer can be found in the president's belief in a living constitution, whose meaning of imminent threat can change in a decade. As Carney voiced this view Tuesday, "Broadly speaking, I think it's important to note that it's in the clear national security interests of the United States that the use and proliferation of chemical weapons on this scale not go unanswered." Broadly speaking, any military conflict anywhere in the world is a "national security interest" that authorizes the president to commit unilateral action, right? How convenient. Obama knows that putting a declaration of war, or even a resolution, through Congress, is hopeless, and in reality unnecessary as both parties subscribe to this view of an empowered executive.

Since the Cold War, the prerogative of a declaration of war has been ruled by arbitrary opinions, giving rise to an innumerable number of military engagements around the world because someone in the administration thought it was preserving a national security interest.

A strike in Syria will neither enhance U.S. national security nor help innocent civilians in the war-torn country. A strong defense cannot be an offense that creates enemies while scattering resources around the world.