For more than two years, the Syrian government of Basher al-Assad has been making war on its own people. But on Aug. 21, Assad used nerve gas on men, women, and children in a Damascus suburb. So this weekend, President Barack Obama argued for a punishing missile strike against Syria and called on Congress authorize it. It was an embarrassment of contradictions.
He gave three grounds for the action: moral outrage, international order, and national security.
Twice he called this silent slaughter of 1,400 an “outrage,” which it certainly is. But more than 100,000 people have died in this civil war as the army has shot and bombed civilian populations along with the armed resistance. How are cluster bombs, incendiary devices, and thermobaric explosives any less outrageous than a gas attack? The president didn’t elaborate, but he was emphatic we should enter the fray.
Second, Obama stressed Assad’s violation of international prohibitions against chemical weapons (which Syria has not signed): “What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons … is not enforced?” The president went on to say that if the United States did not enforce this prohibition, we could expect international mayhem: “[W]hat does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?”
Is it our responsibility to enforce international agreements? Is America the executive branch of international government?
Lastly, Obama said this gas attack has “profound implications for America’s national security.” But the only basis he provided for this claim pertained to making sure that agents of evil are not emboldened to commit atrocities. If Assad is not “held accountable,” presumably Iran may try to develop nuclear weapons or al-Qaeda may try to obtain chemical weapons. But this is already the case.
The president was equally incoherent on his authority to launch the strike. He claimed he needs no authorization from Congress, yet he will seek “authorization” nonetheless because “our democracy is stronger when the president and the people’s representatives stand together.” But how would it weaken our democracy for the president to act on his constitutional authority? Does Obama believe the Constitution is wrong to give him that authority? If he has the authority, he undermines the presidency by asking Congress to “authorize” what the president is empowered to do. Confusion at home and abroad.
The Constitution requires the popular branch to approve war making (Art. 1, Sec.7). In The Federalist Papers No. 4, John Jay explained the reason for this restraint:
“[A]bsolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for purposes and objects merely personal, such as, a thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families, or partisans. These, and a variety of motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctioned by justice, or the voice and interests of his people.”
Heaven forbid a president come to view the United States armed forces as “my military.”
Most American voters these days are not keen on searching the globe for monsters to destroy. Appeals to sentiment and imaginary slippery slopes will not change that. Congress should be similarly skeptical and decline this request.