Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.
August 30, 2013 at 12:02 PM
Congress should vote on Syria attack
Prime Minister David Cameron asked the British Parliament to approve a military attack on Syria and it voted no, 285-272. Britain is staying out. France, the former colonial power, is the Obama administration’s only pal. And what does the U.S. Congress have to say?
Nothing. It’s not in session. Keith Koffler at Whitehousedossier.com made the cynical comment that the real reason for no vote is, “They’re on vacation.” Members of Congress don’t want to have to drop everything and come back to Washington, D.C., and listen to endless speeches and have to vote. “Do not underestimate the power of this,” Koffler writes.
In the House, 116 members have signed a petition for a vote. But that’s only a quarter of the opposition-controlled chamber. When it comes to U.S. military action in places like Syria, Libya and Somalia, Congress has been constitutionally on vacation for a long time. It’s used to letting presidents make war.
Time magazine asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whether the Obama administration should wait for Congress to return and vote. Her answer. “There have been consultations.” But “consultation” is not a vote. British Prime Minister David Cameron could have skated through on “consultation.” On a vote, he lost.
The Constitution is unclear on this. It gives Congress the power to declare war. It makes the president the commander of military forces. Everyone agrees that the president can use the military to defend against an attack, or an imminent attack on American soil or forces. But Syria does not threaten us. U.S. forces would be committing an act of war—a “discrete and limited” act as Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest says, but still, blowing stuff up and killing people to punish Syria’s government for using weapons Obama told it not to.
Congress should vote on this. If the British people, who don’t have a written constitution, can have this sort of check-and-balance on the warmaking of their leader, Americans should have it too. We could have it if Congress called itself back from political vacation and insisted on it.