On Syria, The System Worked

President Barack Obama’s critics have been virtually unanimous in their condemnation of his decision to ask Congress for authorization to use military force against Syria.  In the view of people like Charles Krauthammer, Michael Gerson, and Marc Thiessen, the turn to Congress was a sign of weakness and indecision that undermined both US credibility and the institution of the presidency itself.  Had Congress said no, they reason, it would have been a disaster for the nation as a whole, and for the administration. And these are not the only critics.  Even Robert Gates and Leon Panetta faulted Obama for going to Congress.

In fact, President Obama should be celebrated, not criticized, for seeking Congress’s approval. The Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the authority to declare war and authorize lesser forms of hostilities.  The president may unilaterally use force only in self-defense, and no one has suggested that the strike on Syria could be justified on those grounds.   As I’ve written in a blog for the New York Review of Books the framers gave Congress the power to declare war precisely in order to “clog war” and “facilitate peace.”  In this instance, that’s exactly what happened.  In the breathing space created by Congress’s deliberations, a diplomatic initiative was forged with the Russians that has Syria’s principal ally and defender united with us in ridding Bashar al Assad of his chemical weapons. And Assad has both admitted that he has chemical weapons and agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Had Obama acted first and asked questions later, as all too many presidents have done, and as his critics seem to think he should have, who knows where matters would stand now?   Many Syrians would be dead.   Assad and Russia might well have hardened their positions.  The United States would have been condemned by many for acting unilaterally, without UN Security Council approval, in violation of international law, and without the support of virtually any nations other than France and Saudi Arabia.  Assad might well have felt pressed to up the ante with more chemical weapons strikes. There was, in short, serious doubt as to whether strikes would serve the purpose of deterring chemical weapons attacks.   Now that Russia has joined the US in an effort to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, it will be far more difficult for Assad to use such weapons again.  In short, as I argue in more detail in the New York Review blog, we should be congratulating Obama for abiding by the Constitution, and thereby making it possible to pursue a peaceful – and possibly more effective – solution.  The framers sought to clog war by giving Congress the war power, and on this occasion, they were proved right. 

About the Author(s)

David Cole

National Legal Director of the ACLU and Professor at Georgetown University Law Center Follow him on Twitter (@DavidColeACLU).