Will Congress Authorize?

Why approval for a strike on Syria is far from certain.

McCain at Syria Senate hearingWill Congress authorize a military strike against Syria? The political maneuvering engendered by President Obama's newfound interest in having the legislative branch be part of the equation is turning into quite the campaign. The latest developments present anything but a clear cut picture of the expected outcome.

On the Senate side of the equation, the Foreign Relations Committee came to a tentative agreement on the wording of a resolution that would authorize the use of force. It would permit 60 days of military engagement against Assad's regime, with the option for an additional 30 days, conditioned on the president's notification of Congress. It bars putting U.S. troops on the ground, save for the deployment of a small rescue force for emergency purposes. Within 30 days of the resolution's enactment, Obama would be required to send Congress a plan outlining a diplomatic solution for ending the violence in Syria.

If this nonsense has a familiar ring, that's because it sounds remarkably like Obama's rationale for the use of force in Libya, a military engagement he conducted with no input whatsoever from Congress. "U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors," stated a 32-page report that justified Obama's intervention there, absent the congressional approval required by the Constitution and the War Powers Act of 1973.

Ironically, the Senate's plan cost Obama support from one of his main cheerleaders, the reliably clueless John McCain (R-AZ). McCain insisted the resolution didn't go far enough. "There's no reference to changing the momentum on the battlefield, there's no reference to arming the Free Syrian Army," he said. That would be the same Syrian Free Army that routinely conducts operations with al Qaeda and other Islamist-dominated rebel forces, a reality calculatingly ignored by the Arizona Senator. Equally ignored is the reality that "changing the momentum” is virtually impossible to accomplish without American boots on the ground.

In the House, leaders of both parties declared their support on Monday for military intervention in Syria. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), said he would "support the president's call to action." Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) insisted America "has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the alleged use of chemical weapons "cannot be ignored." “Humanity drew the red line, not President Obama,” she added.

If that talking point sounds familiar, that’s because it was recited almost verbatim by the president himself a day later. “I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line,” Obama contended at a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden. “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility’s on the line."

The president continued. “The moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing,” said Obama. “I do have to ask people if in fact you’re outraged by the slaughter of innocent people, what are you doing about it?”

That's a question the president has had more than 30 months to ponder, while the death toll in Syria steadily climbed to the point where it now tops 100,000 deaths--and while any hope of finding legitimately pro-American forces in Syria has dwindled to nothing.

Furthermore, even as the president announced his intention last Saturday to involve Congress in any decision, he did not call them into emergency session. Since Congress officially reconvenes September 9, Obama has given Assad plenty of time to prepare for any strike. Assad is using that time to hide military hardware in residential areas, and shift troops from military bases to civilian locations.

On the other side of the equation, politicians in both chambers expressed their doubts about the current plan of action. House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) remains noncommittal, as does Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Both men remained that way despite a meeting at the White House. McConnell voiced a sentiment that ought to resonate with the public. "While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is [the president] thinks needs to be done," he said in a statement.

Other critics of military action were far more succinct. “We should be focused on defending the United States of America,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). "That’s why young men and women sign up to join the military, not to, as you know, serve as Al Qaeda’s air force.” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) also wondered why we were intent on serving in that capacity. As for the arming of Syrian rebels, Cruz clearly explained the folly of such an idea. “I’ll give you one of the simplest principles of foreign policy that we ought to be following: Don’t give weapons to people who hate you," he said. “Don’t give weapons to people who want to kill you."

Yet it was Rand Paul (R-KY) who cut right through the political posturing and got down to the essential reason behind Obama's desire to get Congress involved. After conceding that some kind of resolution authorizing force is likely to be passed, Paul pounced on Secretary of State Kerry during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday. Paul was incensed by Kerry's contention that, irrespective of how Congress votes, President Obama retains the right to authorize a military strike. “Madison was very explicit when he wrote the Federalist Papers,” Paul explained. “He wrote that...the Constitution supposes what history demonstrates. That the executive is the branch most likely to go to war and therefore the Constitution vested that power on the Congress.”

Paul then cut to the chase. “If we do not say that the Constitution applies, if we do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you’re making a joke of us," he contended. "You’re making us into theater. And so we play Constitutional theater for the president. If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress."

The theater aspect of this debacle, as well as the scope of the mission itself, was amplified by Kerry at a congressional hearing yesterday, when he revealed that Arab countries were willing to pick up the tab for a full invasion that would topple Assad. “In fact, some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we’ve done it previously in other places, they’ll carry that cost,” Kerry said.

Remarkably, Kerry is apparently undaunted by the thought of Arab nations using the American military as hired help -- boots on the ground, in harm's way.

As for a congressional verdict, despite Paul's contention, the outcome remains very much in doubt. The totals for those who have already weighed in publicly are as follows:

Six Senators, (all Republican) oppose military action, while 14 Senators, (9 Republicans, 4 Democrats, 1 Independent) lean in that direction. Seventeen Senators, (11 Democrats, 6 Republicans) favor military action. The remaining 63 Senators, (37 Democrats, 26 Republicans) are undecided. In the House, 56 Representatives, (38 Republicans, 18 Democrats) are opposed to action, while 86 Representatives (62 Republicans, 24 Democrats) lean no. Seventeen Representatives favor military action (10 Democrats, 7 Republicans), while 99 Representatives (58 Democrats, 41 Republicans) remain undecided.

The resolution authorizing the use of force will fail if 217 House members vote against it, or 40 Senators agree to filibuster it.

If the public matters at all, polls show substantial bipartisan opposition to both a unilateral missile strike and arming Syrian rebels. They remain opposed by a smaller margins if allies become such as France and Britain become involved, but opposed nonetheless. The British parliament has already rejected the idea of getting involved, and France will be engaging in two debates in their Senate and their second chamber, known as Congress National, in coming days. Like Obama, French President Francois Hollande favors a strike, but won't go it alone if the U.S. Congress votes against it.

In the meantime, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee brushed aside Senate rules and rushed through a vote on the aforementioned resolution late Wednesday afternoon. It passed 10-7 with one abstention. A senior GOP senate aide characterized the vote as a “rush to war behind closed doors,” because it would allow the Democratically-controlled Senate to bring the measure to the floor as early as Friday and to a full vote Monday, before the House could craft and vote on a resolution of its own. “We were told there was a need to have a thoughtful and public debate about how this nation goes to war, but this seems to be about simply getting a resolution done to cover the president,” the aide added.

Despite everything the American public will be told in the coming days, getting Congress involved was never about anything else.

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