As Washington swirls with proposals, counter-proposals, and political brinksmanship in response to diplomatic efforts on Syria, the situation has a lot of people scratching their heads. Couldn’t President Obama and Congress have handled this differently?
I prefer to take a step back and ask a different question. Given that we are stronger as a country and our foreign policy more effective when the president and Congress forge a unified response to an international crisis, how can the two branches of government work together less chaotically to confront a dilemma like this one?
Let’s put a possible congressional vote on Syria in context. Washington has long been divided over the power to use American military force, thanks to ambiguity in the Constitution itself: it gives Congress the power to declare war, but makes the president commander-in-chief. The last time Congress formally used its war powers was during World War II. Ever since, as we’ve engaged often in military action, it has ceded authority to the president. It tried to regain lost ground with the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which passed over a presidential veto and which no president since has considered constitutional, but it has been a losing battle. Grenada, Kosovo, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Libya — all were launched by presidents without prior congressional authorization.
So I’m encouraged to see the possibility of a real debate on Capitol Hill on Syria, on what to do when another country uses chemical weapons, and on the projection of U.S. power. Congress should have returned much sooner from its vacation to address issues of such obvious national importance. But at least it’s stepping up to the plate in a way it has preferred to avoid before now.
For let’s be clear. Presidents should not get a free pass on foreign affairs, but neither should Congress get to avoid declaring itself. On such difficult issues in the past, Congress has preferred to sidestep its constitutional responsibility, defer to the president, and then snipe from the sidelines when things go wrong. It has done so repeatedly not just on military issues, but on such matters recently as developing a national cyberwarfare strategy — which it failed at, leaving a matter of critical national security to the president — and on the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications, which members of Congress in the know never saw fit to bring up for public debate, even though it amounts to the largest expansion of government power in recent history.
This time, for better or worse, is different. The arguments both for and against a limited use of American force are reasonable, and congressional leaders are correct when they say this is a matter of conscience. I happen to believe that the United States’ credibility in the world is at stake here and that restoring an international norm against the use of poison gas is important. My guess is that, should a full-fledged debate take place, members will acquit themselves well.
What I don’t want to see is a chaotic process that leaves the U.S. appearing divided and indecisive, with the president forced to wonder how to “consult” with a disorganized Congress in which power is diffused. There is a better way, but it requires a regular mechanism for consultation. A few years ago, a bipartisan National War Powers Commission, of which I was a member, came up with a pragmatic framework that would create a routine process for the president and Congress to follow. It would require the president to consult with congressional leaders before any military action expected to last more than one week — and then would require Congress to declare itself, either by voting to approve action or, if that resolution fails, to allow for a vote to disapprove military involvement.
Had this structure been in place already, a high-stakes vote on Syria wouldn’t seem so unusual and the consultative process would have been far less messy. My hope, once this is over, is that the idea will gain greater currency. When international crises arrive, a routine process that’s allowed our political leaders to build credibility with each other would save them a lot of heartburn.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.