War and peace in a democracy

Even if you were stuffing yourself full of the first weekend of college football, by now you know that President Barack Obama conducted one of the most important Rose Garden addresses in the history of the modern Presidency.

Taking the baton from his Secretary of State John Kerry, he again laid out, in forceful, passionate language, the situation as it was in Syria. He explained that the intelligence community had concluded with great certainty that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical attacks in contested areas of Damascus the week before. He passionately argued that American values and national interest dictated that Assad's regime be punished militarily for the use of those chemical weapons against civilians. He stated that the military had assets in place and was ready to go at any time.

And then he did something no modern president had done. Even though he believed he had the authority to act, he knew that this was a divisive issue, and that the people's representatives had to join in the decision. He called for Congress to debate and vote on a resolution granting him specific authority to militarily strike Assad for violating international treaties banning the use of chemical weaponry, some of the oldest weapons conventions in international law. He had heard the rumblings from Congress saying that he had to seek approval before any strike, and agreed.

But why did he agree? This is where he pivots beyond what all the pundits and talking heads expected. Just before declaring that he would seek Congressional approval, he reiterated that he believed that he had the authority to conduct the attacks with or without Congressional approval. But such an action, in a region of the world where such action could quickly spiral out of control, needed more than just Barack Obama's say-so as Commander in Chief. Syria is not Libya. In the Libyan crisis, the President had a UN resolution with which to work. As a signatory to the UN charter, all member nations had a duty to enforce Security Council resolutions. That was all the authorization he needed.

In Syria, the UN is not functioning. Russia is Assad's patron, and will certainly block any resolution demanding consequences for his actions. And in the US President Obama is facing a nation weary of war, and leery of getting involved in another Middle East quagmire. These particular facets to the Syrian maelstrom invite a different strategy.

Any unilateral action by Obama would, as always when it comes to him, invite backbiting from Congress. An action against a state with a powerful patron means that action has to have broad-based support. Thus, he's demanding that Congress not merely sit on the sidelines, in opposition or support. He is demanding that Congress not hide behind the wake of the Imperial Presidency, mouthing off and hampering any action against Assad. Congress wanted to be consulted on any attack on Syria; Obama called its bluff. It will have to go on record for or against an attack. If it votes for military action, then the President will have the broad support to maintain pressure against Assad. If it votes against, it will have to explain why enforcing chemical weapons conventions is not in the national interest. It will have to explain, member by member, why murdered children will have no voice. It will have to explain why it's allowing a dictator to escape consequence scot free. He is, finally, reminding Congress that it is a co-equal branch of government, and to take that responsibility seriously.

And I agree with him. I am, reluctantly, of the opinion that Assad has to suffer military consequences, not just for the chemical attacks, but for the slaughter he's inflicted on his population. But there is no military solution; a military action can be only one facet of a broad-based strategy against the Syrian regime. But, we are talking about issues of war and peace, life and death. Such issues should have never been left to the purview of one man, even one man whom I trust as implicitly as Barack Obama. Ever since the US emerged as one of two superpowers after the Second World War, the presidency has accrued to itself a power never envisioned by the Founders. Congress has abandoned all responsibilities it has under the Constitution in matters of war and peace. And while I trust Obama to exercise his powers judiciously, he won't be President past 2017. In the 21st century, no one man or woman should arrogate to himself all decision making in these matters of war and peace, life and death. The world is too interconnected, a fact which makes it paradoxically both stronger and more fragile. A general war could set the world back decades, if not a century or more, such is the fragile structure upon which modernity rests.

War and peace in a democracy should be decided not only by an all-powerful President, but by the people elected to be the commonwealth's representatives. If such power remains in the hands of one man on a continual basis, then eventually we may be a democracy only in name. The Founders knew that a state of perpetual war is inimical to a healthy state. It creates disruptions in the social and political fabric which are difficult to put right.

In one Rose Garden statement, Barack Obama brought these issues into sharp focus. He's not just Commander in Chief; he's President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. That democracy deserves to have its voice heard. Life and death cannot be decided by his fiat; the overpaid and reticent members of Congress have to be forced to accept responsibilities they have long shirked. There is no escape for them; they will choose either action or inaction, and own their decision. And that's as it should be in a democracy. Just as Congress voted for the AUMF after 9/11, under which the drone program operates, so must Congress have a voice in an action which promises so much peril. Syria is not Libya; a hornet's nest awaits, and the people's representatives should own the consequences, as the Constitution stipulates.

What the President did was call the nation to a serious discussion of what constitutes the national interest. I only hope that this so-far feckless Congress is up to the gravity of the situation.


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