Last weekend, I was privileged to attend Ring Weekend at West Point where I watched my son and over a thousand other cadets receive their class rings. In less than nine months, they will be given something even more meaningful after graduation — second lieutenant bars on their uniforms as they volunteer to step into harm’s way for our safety and freedom.
Against this backdrop we are witnessing President Obama’s call to Congress for approval of military action in Syria’s protracted civil war. This is not an action that the House and Senate should take lightly and merely rubber stamp the president’s war cry. Instead, given what we know at the present time, it must say “no.”
The United States Constitution is clear and unambiguous – Article 1 Section 8 vests the power to “Declare War” in the legislative body. Why? James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, stated succinctly over two hundred years ago: “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature.”
Healthy skepticism to a presidential war cry is critical for a Congressman to step up and answer this constitutional responsibility. Almost 170 years ago a young Illinois Congressman risked his career trying to raise such questions about the reasons given by another President’s rush to war against Mexico. That young Congressman was Abraham Lincoln and his concerns echoed those of Madison when he warned of Executives’ historical proclivity, if unchecked, of “involving and impoverishing their people in wars.”
In the present debate, President Obama’s rush to military intervention is after two years of empty bellicose language on his administration’s part calling for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s removal and declaring “red lines” or lines in the sand — followed by a refusal to back more preferable rebel groups and turning a blind eye to earlier chemical attacks.
As a result it is difficult to see today any side in this conflict that we would consider a friend or ally should they prevail. The Syrian government is propped up by Iran, Russia, and the Hezbollah. The dominant rebels are supported by Al Qaeda. Both sides are locked into a desperate fight to the death understanding in the end it is either victory or annihilation. Given this fact, it is difficult to see how a weak limited response will have any impact on the players in this civil war, and a strong long term military intervention will risk young American lives in a no win conflict far more daunting than Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Vietnam.
Therefore, Congress must demand prudence and exercise cautiously its most solemn Constitutional responsibility. At the present time, the arguments against militarily intervening in Syria far out weigh any reason to go in. They include:
1. It is not our fight. There are no American lives or vital national interests at risk. Furthermore, our presence alone in a conflict often ignites greater conflict. The great Civil War writer Shelby Foote told the tale of a young East Tennessee Confederate soldier who was asked why he was fighting since his family owned no slaves. His answer to his Union interrogator was simply because “you are down here.” This is a real universal sentiment against any perceived outside invading force. We would be far better off aiding those for whom it is their fight, which includes the Arab League which has condemned the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.
2. There is no clearly defined long term positive outcome from intervening. As it presently stands, no matter which side wins, we lose.
3. The short term gains sought by the Administration – deterring the use of chemical weapons – provide a classical long term slippery slope that must be avoided. No one seriously believes that limited air and missile strikes will have any meaningful impact. When this fails, we will be asked to escalate further and then further again. We have seen this before. We know the mistakes of the past and need not be condemned to repeat them.
4. If our goals are truly limited, our response should be limited – but decisive. In addition to providing tactical support and aid any Arab League action, we should also be prepared to participate in multi national sanctions against those who cross a universally recognized red line for civilized behavior and those who assist them, seize overseas assets of wrong doers if available, link aid to rebel fighters to those that reject Al Qaeda or similar radical groups, and protect and provide humanitarian aid to refugees. Granted, these acts may or may not work in the short run, but all of them are more likely to bear fruit in the long run than unilaterally lobbing a few cruise missiles and thumping our chests.
In conclusion, waging war is the most serious action any government can undertake. It must not be entered into rashly, to save face, or with vague ambiguous goals – and yet that is exactly what President Obama is asking Congress to approve. The young men and women in uniform we will ask to wage this battle deserve better.