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On War and Declarations of War

Bellona
Yesterday the United Kingdom showed us what it looks like to live under the rule of law:

British lawmakers on Thursday delivered a stunning rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to punish the government of Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons, citing skepticism over the misinformation used to back the Iraq war as a reason for staying out of Syria and raising the prospect that any U.S.-led strike would go ahead without its staunchest military ally.

The move came as a severe blow both to Cameron — a Conservative Party hawk on Syria — and to U.S. hopes of securing a Britain as a cornerstone of a coalition. After an eight-hour debate, Cameron lost a vote that was seen as a symbolic, preliminary motion setting up a final vote in the days ahead. The failure of even the weaker piece of legislation, in a 285 to 272 vote, suggested that Cameron faces overwhelming opposition to the idea of Britain joining any strikes.

All this is just as it should be: The representatives of the people decided the question of war, and this time around they said no. The morning headline today is damning by contrast:

Obama has power, determination to make own decision on Syria, administration says

No, Mr. Obama, you do not. We live under a written constitution, and that constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Without a declaration, you may act only in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Not one of those things has happened in Syria, nor is there even a vaguely plausible scenario by which they might. There isn’t even a fig leaf of justification to this intervention. It is simply warmaking by executive fiat. It is precisely what our Constitution was designed to prevent. It is a lawless and illegitimate act.

The power to declare war was not given to Congress by accident. Nor is it some arcane ritual of a bygone era.

No, this arrangement was done by conscious design: so that the representatives of the individuals who would fight, risk their lives, and die might first decide whether the matter was compelling enough to demand such a sacrifice. The Parliament of the United Kingdom has just said no, and there is reason to believe that our Congress would say no too, if only they were asked. It doesn’t look like they will be.

Entrusting to Congress the power to declare war is an anti-war measure. It exists to keep us out of war. Congress — flighty, irresolute, perpetually deadlocked — would not act in concert except in fairly dire circumstances. And none who had to face the wrath of a democratic electorate would send those voters out on a war if national defense did not absolutely compel it. Or so the thinking went.

It’s not a perfect system; none are. But the founders knew very well the history of Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. They had seen quite enough of executive warmaking. That approach brought Europe perpetual war, perpetual turmoil, and an empty, puffed-up “glory” for monarchs who gained little, lost little, and risked absolutely nothing while slaughtering each others’ subjects.

The United States, our founders promised, would be different. As a republic, we would not treat our citizens, or the citizens of any other country, as gambit pawns. We are individuals, and so are they, and we are not fodder for the growing of empires. That, anyway, was the idea.

How sad that Europe now is showing us the error of our ways.

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103 thoughts on “On War and Declarations of War

  1. It has all been seen before, in the Balkans. The world will do nothing. The UN will sit there, one thumb in its mouth and the other in its ass, periodically switching them out, as Syria descends into blankest anarchy and Iraq returns to it. Russia will again balk every effort to stop this war, as it sheltered the Serbian maniacs, as China has protected its mad chihuahua dog North Korea, as the USA has protected Israel and backed half the tyrants and genocide artistes in the world.

    The American Constitution is useless. It is a piece of paper. The Congress may have the power but it lacks the conscience to do anything meaningful. Politics is the art of compromise, we are told. But mostly it’s the art of dissembling, lying to ourselves. Since its inception, this nation’s politicians have deluded themselves, thinking the world’s wars would never come to their doors. They continue to do so. Pleasant fantasies.

    Europe has shown us the error of our ways, for we are now repeating all of Europe’s errors. Europe has much to teach us, as it taught us in the Balkans and many another sordid little episode of religious warfare, that doing nothing is also a choice, that postponing the inevitable only makes things worse. Europe practically invented religious warfare. They certainly invented fascism and did nothing about that mad dog. Fascism ate most of them alive and they cooperated with it. America did intervene in those wars — and many wars since, pulling open the Pandora’s Boxes of Afghanistan and Iraq, loosing religious and tribal warfare upon the world. We won’t act because we lack the conscience to do so.

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    • Here here. Sadly, this is a direct and forseeable consequence of the “Authorization of the Use of Military Force” charade that was carried out in the last Administration to get to Iraq and Afghanistan. Like it or not, we have now become a country fully subsumed to the Military Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned us about.

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    • The best that can be said for doing nothing in this situation is that it won’t be remotely as disastrous – for the Syrian people as much as everyone else as initiating a theatrewide Mideastern war. Nothing we do is going to make this situation better. Using military force will only make it worse.

      “Humanitarian war” is a myth, Blaise. If we want to save lives, we can save a lot more lives at a lot less cost by putting any money we are tempted to spend on such wars into fighting hunger, malaria, AIDS, TB, and poor sanitation, which kill on a scale that Assad could only dream of. We don’t need to start wars in order to save lives.

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  2. Maximum respect to David Cameron for bowing to the wishes of his Parliament when he clearly would have done the contrary of its vote, given a free hand.

    The only half-hearted defense of the apparently imminent American military action I can muster is that our Congress is not particularly representative of the will of the people. It was a close vote in the UK, it would be a close vote in the US. But the opinion of a war-loving yet President-hating House of Representatives elected out of gerrymander rather than mandate, combined with a dysfunctional Senate intended to represent states rather than people, may not be the best register of what the American people really want to see their government do.

    That said, the institutions matter anyway despite their painfully obvious flaws. War in Syria would be no more constitutional than war in Libya was. I recall we had prolonged military activity there with no Congressional authorization either, justified by word games rather than law.

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  3. citing skepticism over the misinformation used to back the Iraq war as a reason for staying out of Syria.

    I was reading an article last night about intercepted communications (supposedly given to us by the Israelis) and other evidence for the use of chemical weapons, and I started having flashbacks to 2002-2003. I wonder if our Congress will be reminded of that time as well. Judging by the way American politicians and the press have reacted to, and justified, their wrongness in back then, I doubt they will be.

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    • The logic goes like this, I think:

      If the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, then we must attack.
      The Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people.
      Therefore, we must attack.

      I disagree with the major premise, so I am comparatively uninterested in the minor premise. But yes.

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  4. I’m pretty sure religious and tribal warfare was loose in the world long before we showed up, but I get your point. The administration has already dithered along to get us to this point, wasting all the opportunities to help or shape the Syrian resistance efforts. But that’s water under the bridge.

    The problem continues in that even if we strike at Syria, we’re still doing nothing with any real point, lashing out with thousand-pound warheads to send a message, make a statement about “norms”, and defend the President’s personal reputation.

    Not even the people in charge of sending the missiles think the strike will change anyone’s behavior, because the conflict is a civil war that’s become a war of ethnic and religious survival.

    So in the middle of such a ghastly struggle, the President is about to initiate what used to be known, technically, as a “war of insult.” We used to fight quite a few of those back in the day, and the usual way they went is that some Navy captain or Marine colonel would take offense at some local potentate who disrespected us, so they’d gather their men and go blow up a bunch of forts to teach them a lesson. Serious consequences were rare because we’d usually do it to people who weren’t really well armed and who lived in places that didn’t really matter. Such “wars” were just an officer’s way of asserting that we won’t be pushed around a rough neighborhood by tribal chiefs and glorified street gangs – or people we considered as ignorant, poorly armed, and backwards.

    Reagan’s bombing of Libya fit right in that mold, but Libya was attacking us and US interests, killing American citizens. We just wanted them to stop and behave, and so they did.

    Yet an attack on Syria can’t seriously alter the regime’s behavior because they’re locked in an existential civil war. If the regime loses, Alawites and Shiites will probably be slaughtered, and will certainly be stripped of power, status, and shoved so far down into abject oppression that most will become refugees. A few in the regime will make it out with whatever money they’ve got hidden in Swiss bank accounts, but the rest will lose everything, and quite likely their very lives. Blowing up some buildings that, if the regime is overthrown, will get burned to the ground anyway isn’t much of an inducement.

    If we wanted to change the situation in Syria, we’d actually need to have a plan, with details and such, involving a whole lot of military and social changes, perhaps even territorial changes. But we don’t have that. All we have is some questionable intelligence (our own agencies are saying they’re not really sure who ordered the chemical attacks), some missiles, and a President who wants to look relevant, or at least less befuddled and disrespected.

    Putin said we were acting like a monkey with a hand grenade. I say “Oh heck no. We’re twerking!!!” And twerking might be okay if nobody was really going to get hurt except for people we want to hurt, but that may not be the case.

    If the Alawites and their allies are desperate enough to fire chemical weapons on civilians, making them more desperate might not be particularly wise. Given that their enemies are Al Nusra, Al Qaeda, and other militant Sunni jihadists, toppling the regime and letting whoever is there to walk off with all those chemical weapons might not be wise either. Syria also has new advanced Russian anti-ship missiles, an intact air defense system, and apparently 8,000 suicide bombers ready to attack Western airliners, or some such.

    In such a tricky and complicated situation, you think wisdom would dictate that we at least discuss things amongst ourselves, weigh the options, suggest alternatives, suggest better or more effective courses of action, and weigh the risks of serious blow back or long term repercussions.

    But hey, the Nobel Price Winner in-Chief doesn’t need to talk to nobody. Heck, he doesn’t even need to explain himself.

    .

    Bush may have not one a Nobel Peace Prize, but at least he went to the trouble to make a case about Iraq, for 18-months, and got Congressional approval before committing us to war.

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    • At some point, European and “western” countries – the U.S. included – need to own the fact that much of what passes for “modern history” in the Middle East is really white power brokers picking winners and loosers to allow for the exploitation of oil. Thus formerly nomadic tribal nations, small sultanates, and a host of other functional but not European societies were forced to give way to fixed boundary states. The bloody Arab Spring and all its descendents are just the latest attempt by the region to right those long ago but still damaging wrongs.

      This is a civil war, and if others in the region are worried about it, they need to act. the Saudis ave a very effective airforce, built and trained by the US. Perhaps they should bomb Damascus first.

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      • Actually the oil came a bit after the West carved up the Ottoman Empire. Oil wasn’t discovered in the Gulf until 1931. It was pumped from southern Iran a bit sooner, in 1911, but the quantities weren’t that large and it was mostly looked at as a convenient spot to refill British warships.

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    • point. The administration has already dithered along to get us to this point, wasting all the opportunities to help or shape the Syrian resistance efforts

      1. We have provided hundreds of billions in food and medicine.

      2. The administration worked to try to get the multiple opposition groups to unite under one umbrella leadership organization.

      3. The CIA is training the opposition.

      4. The idea that we can really shape the opposition’s efforts is standard American hubris, the typical unwillingness to recognize the real limits to outsider capacity, even when the outsider is the U.S.

      As little as I like to defend this administration, this criticsm smacks of a cheap partisan shot at the president.

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      • We have definitely not provided hundreds of billions in food and medicine, unless every Syrian in need of aid (about 7 million of them) is getting chemo, a liver transplant, and free MRI’s while eating Swiss chocolate and foie gras.

        The other issue is that we’ve been supplying arms to Assad’s forces, or at least we’re supply arms to people who keep providing them to the Shiite militias fighting for Assad. We should probably stop that, or at least convince the Iranian-backed pro-Assad militias to quit posing for Facebook photos with all their brand new US weapons. It makes us look bad.

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      • I’m writing this comment in stone as it is the single example of a professed conservative lamenting that we haven’t *spent enough* on foreign aid. Funny how that works if you’re trying to score points against a democratic administration.

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      • Eh, hundreds of millions. Obvious typo is obvious to anyone who’s not an ideologue. Doesn’t change the fact that you spewed a little bullshit there, does it? I’m always intrigued by people who are so cowardly that they have to write a little misdirection piece in response instead of just saying “yeah, I got that wrong.”

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  5. There isn’t even a fig leaf of justification to this intervention. It is simply warmaking by executive fiat. It is precisely what our Constitution was designed to prevent. It is a lawless and illegitimate act.

    It’s not an act: it’s still a notion. At least as far as I’m aware.

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      • Libya is an act, though, so it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it did before he did that. Still, I’d like to give him all the chance he possibly can be given to not do this (this way) before I start talking about it like it’s been done already (which, for some reason, it seems like just about everyone who’s chosen to talk about this, particularly those who don;t want to see it happen (again) have done. At some level, it’s reasonable given the administration’s signal, but at another level, there might be some contribution that such a decisive trend in the language used in discussions about the prospect of this happening could make in creating (or preventing) an environment where a foregone conclusion more easily turns into an actual concrete fait accompli. Might as well not contribute to that, it seems to me.

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      • Well, yesterday Obama was focused on the question of how to defend Jordan in the event of a Syrian response to a US missile attack, so he was consulting on strategy with Magic Johnson, who Tweeted:

        August 29, 2013:I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be in a working meeting with the smartest and most powerful leader in the world, Pres. Obama!

        and

        There was great information and strategy that was laid out in the meeting today at the White House with Pres. Obama!

        Twitter link

        It’s almost certain that Assad is consulting with Dennis Rodman, but the worrying unknown is whether his regime is getting advice from Larry Bird.

        Now if only there were a mechanism for those of us who weren’t NBA all-stars to have some kind of input into the decision to go to war.

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  6. As I’ve said before, I am not 100 percent convinced that military intervention in Syria is unjustified. As I’ve said before, I would like the U.S. to have an active and international foreign policy that supports human rights, democracy, and liberty.

    But you are completely right that the power to declare war belongs to Congress and belongs with them for a reason.

    However, I will add that I think Congress probably likes the current way of handling military power and use because it gives them the best of both worlds. It allows them to complain about the Executive trampling on the Constitution while also being saved from needing to make a really tough and possibly very unpopular decision. A decision that could cost them their seat in 2014 or any other future election and intervention scenario.

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    • This is it precisely it and all the more reason that Obama should seek authorization from Congress. If Congress doesn’t want to make the decision, it should be forced on them.

      I’m hopeful the example set by Cameron and the British inspires the Obama Administration, but after Pelosi jumped on the military response train this morning that hope is dwindling.

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    • Can you explain to me how the United States could launch an intervention in Syria that falls short of a full invasion but is more than a symbolic action and still be helpful? The region is chaotic enough without a full invasion. Lobbing a few missiles at government targets is going to look impotent because it is not going to do anything.

      If the United States really wanted to help the Syrian people and make the region more stable, we would admit hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians into America as refugees. We should also send food, clothing, other supplies, and humanitarian personnel to the refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Israel has spent three million dollars providing medical care to Syrian’s brought into Israel by the IDF to receive medical care in Israel hospitals. We can pay give Israel money to pay for this care. All of these actions would be years more helpful and meaningful than military intervention.

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      • If we prove to Assad that using CW will lead to us harming his military then that changes the calculus for him. If CW is easy to use with no repercussions then he is likely to use it. If using CW means his military will suffer serious harm then it isn’t worthwhile for him to use it. We certainly can harm his military. That part is pretty straightforward. Will that make much of a difference; no not really but the actual logic of trying to set a norm with repercussions about using CW is simple and clear.

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      • First and most helpful intervention would be to assemble a body of Syrian scholars, jurists and other political persons. They would prepare the outlines for what would follow Bashar Assad in terms of a government. All interested parties would be welcome at this semi-permanent conference, including the Islamists.

        The players in Syria can be sorted out into these sorts:

        1. Simple criminal gangs taking advantage of the chaos, extorting and robbing.

        2. More organised groups with long term political objectives.

        3. The Islamists, imposing their own brand of harsh justice in the here-and-now. They are widely respected for this attitude, for most people in such anarchic conditions will flock to anyone who can keep the criminals at bay.

        4. The Fearful Beneficiaries of the Ba’ath Era. They don’t like Assad, not even his own Alawite contingent. The Assad clan has shown themselves to be brutal, even to their own. Syria under Baathism was horrid but it was pluralistic, the Assad clan treated everyone like shit, but it wasn’t an Islamic State. This group clings to Assad, feverishly singing his praises, mostly out of fear of the first three groups.

        The Committees of Correspondence laid the groundwork for what would become of the USA. It pulled in the best minds of a generation. Creating such a Commiittee of Correspondence is something we could do. Should such a body appear, it would do more to delegitimise the Assad regime than anything else. It would also serve as a forum for all invested parties. Everyone would pay attention to it, for nobody wants any more Assads or Husseins or any of these other monstrous Strong Men running these wretched countries.

        The Islamists are pulling ahead in the war of ideas because they’re able to provide security now. They don’t have a plan for the long term. Might add in passing, it’s also true of Egypt. Palaver costs pennies compared to wars. But someone’s going to have to win in Syria and they will need to win the war of ideas first, as the Committees of Correspondence won that war for the USA — before the first shot was fired.

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      • PS: No World Power types are invited to that little Committee’s proceedings. Fund it, get it working, get these guys into a hotel somewhere, pay their bills, keep them talking — but do not interfere with their proceedings. Syria must at long last come to some sense of itself and we have no part to play in that process. But we could pay for it.

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      • “If we prove to Assad that using CW will lead to us harming his military then that changes the calculus for him. ”

        The magnitude of the operation that would be effective against harming his military – specifically in their operations against the rebels, not just in general – is far more than anything the Obama administration has ever put on the table. Because, unlike Libya there is not a clear ‘front’ with most everyone on one side or another, and to get at the Syrian military air arm – which is just a support function, not the main effort – one would need to penetrate and/or eliminate Syria’s air defense system, something that is far more formidable than anything Libya had (or any other adversary the US has had since Vietnam)

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      • I’m not saying its a good idea K. If we destroy enough command centers, high values targets, etc, that can have a significant affect on his military. Will we do that? i don’t know, but it is within our capability. We don’t have to tip the balance towards the rebels to put a hurt on his military, we just have to hurt them enough to feel that using CW isn’t worth the pain.

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      • Well, a few days ago I argued that what would really help is for us to convince the countries in the region to put together some kind of allied military force tasked with simply stopping the conflict. If the coalition was broad enough, none of the countries would get targeted in retaliation, and they could even include members of the Syrian military who would prefer an end to Assad’s regime but are currently unwilling to risk losing social control and suffering vicious reprisals.

        The conflict is driven by anger and fear. The only way to reduce the anger is to push aside all the groups people are mad at (on both sides), and the only way to reduce the fear is to provide a force that can guarantee a level of safety, at least in the short and medium term. It would perhaps have to be sold to the Syrians as a stabilization force, making sure neither side wins but neither side loses.

        But selling that idea to potential coalition members would take some very heavy lifting, and the administration has neither the skills nor the inclination to do any of the required work. Obama can give empty speeches about coming together, but actually bringing people together is not on his agenda – too hard, takes too long. So absent that, we’re looking for some plan B, not that we ever had a plan A.

        So here’s my plan B.

        The conflict stems from several main sources:

        1) The past oppression of Alawites and their later consolidation of power under French rule, leading to the Assad regime and modern Syria.

        2) The abuses of that regime and the hostility it engendered.

        3) The rebels’ determination to wipe the regime, and all non-Sunnis, off the face of the Earth.

        4) The ancient Sunni/Shia conflict, which now threatens to engulf the region.

        Fixing 1, 2, and 3 are pretty hard to address, so we’ll just skip those.
        So on to 4, which automatically fixes 1, 2, and 3 when solved.

        To solve 4, we need to start where the great Muslim civil war began, in Ar Raqqah, about a hundred miles east of Aleppo. There, Obama will reveal to Shias and Sunnis that he is, in fact, the Twelfth Imam and that he has come to unite all Muslims, that Fatimah was actually a Mossad agent, and that Ali was white racist oppressor from Birmingham Alabama. Then everyone will forget about being Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Sufi, Wahabist, Salafist, or whatever, and the fighting will suddenly stop. Of course, the region’s unemployment rate will skyrocket as their economies tank, but that’s just par for the course for anyone living under The Anointed One.

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      • Saddam had his backers and toadies, too. Many of them drove from Baghdad to Damascus with truckloads full of valuables. They’re the folks who backed the Sunni insurgency we fought in Iraq. They’re still around in Syria. None of them are welcome back in Iraq. They’re a huge consideration, too, the rump Iraqi Ba’athists.

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      • There’s no force capable of “stopping the current conflict”. This fight has been brewing since the time of Hafiz Assad. It’s not much different than the fight in Iraq, where a Ba’athist dictator had kept the lid on the pressure cooker for many decades. The lid has worked loose, the cooker is spitting out steam, people are dying, it’s very ugly.

        But what we see now is not not half so ugly as what will follow the overthrow of Bashar Assad. As with Iraq, where Bush43 planned on a fairly rapid regime change, installing a friendly government, running an election or two, then backing out — that won’t be possible in Syria. Syria is a lobster trap. Syria isn’t intimidated by the threat of military intervention. They’ll just go to ground, as did the Serb and Croat war criminals, the Iraqi war criminals, many other examples come to mind — and military intervention the way we do it will have practically no effect. We will only throw these bastards into the Briar Patch.

        Bashar Assad relishes the idea of some Measured Response. Such lunacy only plays into his hands, gives him some legitimacy, as did the embargoes and half-measures we imposed on Saddam Hussein for all those years between Bush41 and Bush43’s invasion. They know us pretty well by now. America telegraphs its punches anyway. I think half the reason Bashar Assad (more likely his idiot brother) deployed all those gas munitions was to tempt us into just such a Measured Response.

        If, however, we were to present the world with some proposed replacement government, with buy-in from all the players, including the Alawites, simply saying “We’re now going to evict Bashar Assad and here’s who will replace him” — now that would put the fear of God into that moustachioed little maniac.

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      • “we just have to hurt them enough to feel that using CW isn’t worth the pain.”

        The differential between the pain they are already feeling and what a US allied coalition can put on them with a limited set of airstrikes (vice an air campaign like Kosovo or Libya) is minimal. An air campaign can put on the necessary hurt, but that’s never been in the cards – or at least none of the ones the Administration have shown.

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      • That might work, Blaise. Too bad we’re a bit too “sophisticated” to give King Abdullah of Jordan (or Queen Noor, or some such) a huge coalition army to invade Syria, lead all the refugees back home, and claim the throne. The Syrians might even go for that, if the promise was that he wasn’t going to touch anyone’s money, or their property, and that Assad and his family can simply retire to one of King Hussein’s royal palaces. Queen Noor is a blonde, so if she could come up with some dragons I think it would be a cinch.

        As it is, we’re all out of carrots and aren’t willing to use a stick of unusual size.

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      • Rodents of Unusual Size, more like it. The very stupidest thing America could possibly do is to Thump the Rubble, firing big ol’ cruise missiles and sending Droney the Friendly Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to do more of same. Nobody will be either Shocked (for America always telegraphs its punches) nor will they be Awed, for we never exhibit the testicular fortitude to impose the necessary security measures required. We want to be Nice Guys, just so desperate to be liked, we’ll give your kid a basket of schoolbooks one day and drop a fucking cluster munition on him tomorrow. We’re schizophrenic, we’re stupid and we’re violent. Emphasis on Violent. And Stupid.

        Anyone who proposes a military solution in Syria at this point is an idiot. Which doesn’t mean Bashar Assad should be tolerated any longer. That bastard needs to go. But unless and until we have a replacement for him, any such intervention is pointless.

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      • As for the Hashemite Royalty, they are hardly our Good Buddies. If we’re to eat our own dog food and back pluralistic democracies, we might ask that debonair young gentleman (isn’t his English great? Gosh!) currently running Jordan to get serious about some actual democratic reforms.

        We never will, of course. We don’t believe any of that happy horseshit. We bow down before the idols of Washington and Jefferson and other Saintly Founding Father types and otherwise ignore their warnings. The grand total for our two most recent wars are two more Islamic Republics, neither of which is more appealing than a bucket of stale horse piss.

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      • About the only halfway decent outcome I see is if both sides just entrench in their own regions and set up a partition. That might be fairly workable, because the Shias and Alawite are almost entirely along the coast, with the Christians holding the mountains (just as they do in Lebanon). If the strip north of Lebanon (which looks almost like a northern extension of Lebanon) was split off, the rest of the Syria would be Sunni with some tiny, isolated pockets of Druze and Christians.

        Once the Alawites, Shias, and Christians no longer have to worry about the security threat presented by an overwhelmingly Sunni population, perhaps they could drop the police-state paranoia. In the large Sunni area, perhaps the Saudis and other Gulf states could just throw around enough money to re-establish order.

        Unfortunately I don’t think either side is willing to give up on total control and their mutual fear and hatred isn’t going to fade very quickly.

        BTW, Assad’s 11-year old son was taunting Obama on Facebook, and doing a darn fine job of it. ^_^

        If Rand Paul gets elected in 2016, perhaps he and Assad can sit down to talk things out, eye doctor to eye doctor.

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      • Well, as we’ve seen in the region, voting doesn’t produce the results we’d like if the voters keep wanting to return to the 7th century. King Hussein may not have been democratic, but he was probably better than most alternatives, especially given the large number of Palestinians that Jordan absorbed. As even Muslims have observed, the presidents they do elect seem to stay in power for life, often passing rule to their sons. Our former Presidents do fund raisers and write the occasional long boring book. Muslim former presidents are always either assassinated, exiled, or in jail. So perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on the appearance of democracy without its functional mechanisms.

        One thing I’ve been reading about from Egyptian bloggers is that throughout the Middle East, most people are inclined to only vote for someone from their own tribe or clan (this applies heavily to local elections). Of course the person they’re voting for would be a prominent clan member, or become one, dispensing perks and whatnot. It’s hard to have a battle of ideas when ideas aren’t what candidates are running on. It makes me wonder if Muslim democracy would function best among unrelated refugees from everywhere.

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    • As I’ve said before, I would like the U.S. to have an active and international foreign policy that supports human rights, democracy, and liberty.

      Ok, so why do we need to do this with guns and cruse missiles? How about formal recognition of the Palestinian state? There’s an active and international foreign policy act that supports human rights, democracy and liberty and gets NO Americans killed (nor anyone in the region by Americans FWIW).

      Syria is in the midst of a civil war, and when the U.S. has intervened in those, we tend to get a lot of Americans killed for no good strategic or existential reason. Beruit 1982 leaps immediately to mind. Egypot will soon be there, and since we don’t even have the balls to call it a coups so we can save %1.5 Billion U.S. taxpayer dollars . . . why do we need to act here? Hell, we created the Iraqi civil war . . .

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      • America did not create the Iraqi Civil War. We tolerated it, though.

        Egypt is one of our more interesting creations: Egypt’s army is the only institution in the country with any popular support. We created that military with American dollars and American training. They bought American weapons with all those billions.

        Sure, we played footsie with Mubarak for years. We kinda had to. Egypt has been fighting wars against Islamic Terror for far longer than we have. Osama bin Ladin and his Al Qaeda were inspired by an Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb. Ayman al Zawahiri is an Egyptian surgeon turned jihaadi. The Muslim Brotherhood gave rise to Hamas.

        All this business about recognising a Palestinian State — we’ve been at this I/P peace accord business since the creation of the State of Israel. When every American president has to deal with these bozos, you might say we recognise the men, if not the state. The Palestinians have proven to be their own worst enemies. Where they might have cut some deal with Israel, they never presented a united front. Just the corrupt windbag-du-jour.

        I lost friends in Beirut. We backed out of that mission because Reagan was a pussy.

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  7. “Not one of those things has happened in Syria, nor is there even a vaguely plausible scenario by which they might. There isn’t even a fig leaf of justification to this intervention. It is simply warmaking by executive fiat. It is precisely what our Constitution was designed to prevent. It is a lawless and illegitimate act.”

    Here I disagree. I think that Assad is a war criminal and brute and he is and has committed crimes of humanity against his own people. He is a petty dictator.

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    • This isn’t reason enough to intervene. We need to know if our intervention is going to make things better or worse. The only way we can make things better through military means is a full-scale invasion and occupation of Syria. Everything else is not going to do much and is only going to make us look powerless.

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  8. The UK Parliament vote is an inflection point in this affair; I’m betting now no action during this administration.

    This doesn’t rule out doing something on the downlow with CIA or spec ops (like arming the rebels), but the political situation *now* is about sending a message. The thing is, the telegraph company to send the message just went down to its final shareholder. The Arab league doesn’t want to do anything, Germany doesn’t want to do anything, the UK doesn’t want to do anything – France still wants to play, but are not in the position to – and the UN Security Council was never going to be onboard anyway. Since the US is ‘leading from behind’ these days (which is perfectly acceptable), with no one to front the operation, there is no longer the operational structure that the Obama administration has been using heretofore.

    Hence, no cruise missiles or drone strikes. Much less a no fly zone and being the FSA’s air force, as we were in Libya.

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      • I’m not entirely sure how different a US strike (at least the ones we’re seen bandied about) would be from these. Certainly they all seem to be narrowly targeted kinetic strikes.

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      • I’m not entirely sure how different a US strike (at least the ones we’re seen bandied about) would be from these. Certainly they all seem to be narrowly targeted kinetic strikes.

        Well, that’s exactly the problem. American interests aren’t congruent with Israeli interests (though they are complementary) – what makes sense for Israel to target (a Hezbollah missile shipment) doesn’t matter for the US. Hitting a potential nuke reactor *would* make sense for the Obama Administration’s aims, but there isn’t a target like that left (afaik)

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      • If we wanted our strike to actually have a real effect (as opposed to sending a message that might unite more Syrians to support Assad out of patriotism), we wouldn’t have given him all this warning that we were going to blow something up. Now everything worth hitting has probably been moved, and we had very poor intelligence on where his stockpiles had been in the first place. That’s an issue that President Telegraph McBombyPants should’ve thought about earlier. Now we hear that Assad may be employing human shields around certain targets, which probably means our strikes will kill more children than Assad’s chemical attacks did.

        And that’s the problem with our administration violently lashing out in outrage over something they saw in… a Youtube video.

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      • Non-kinetic strike – no big bada boom; cyber attack, for instance.

        True, ‘kinetic strike’ is almost redundant, but there are other ‘activities’ (like electromagnetic spectrum jamming) which are non-kinetic but are still aggressive and may be considered an act of war, depending on context (and attribution).

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  9. Even more impressive if you consider this vote was not actually necessary. Under British law the power to declare war rests with the crown not with parliament, which means Cameron could have simply started bombing and announced it was in the name of the Queen and that would have been perfectly legal.

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  10. With all things Obama, there’s an onion to peel.

    There’s the overt actions; which seem to be just as Jason has laid things out, and I 100% agree.

    Then there’s the patina of the Unitary Executive; that sickening power grab, which is the guise for Obama having the right to do this without Congressional approval. (I’m willing to be proved wrong on this point, but it is how it seems to me.) In the world of a not-Obama GOP, to accomplish anything, it seems Obama has to fill the negative space of his actual goal. So if the goal is pushing the predecent of Unitary Executive into the dustbin of history, then what better way to do so then to push it in as desirable policy? Of course this rabbit hole’s abilit to distort reality is puts Alice’s to shame.

    It all leaves a sickening stench on government. But it’s not all Obama’s fault, that stench. The art of compromise has been sacrificed on the altar of partisanship; and it seems to me that only one party did that, and in keeping with the twisted logic of this comment, it’s not Obama’s.

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      • If we want to stop the President from getting us entangled in military interventions than Congress is going to have to resume their role in military matters on their own inititative. We can’t do it for them.

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      • And I think this is one area where both parties really are equally bad. Both parties made a deliberate choice that Congress simply won’t invoke its war powers and would simply defer to the President as Commander-In-Chief.

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      • “If we want to stop the President from getting us entangled in military interventions than Congress is going to have to resume their role in military matters on their own inititative. We can’t do it for them.”

        This.

        And I think this same answer can be used with every single instance of executive power abuse I see discussed ’round these parts.

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  11. The ironic thing is that Cameron actually doe shave war powers – the vote was purely symbolic. The reason he’s unlikely to go against it is that A) A Prime Minster who loses the support of their caucus or of Parliament becomes an ex-Prime Minister in short order and B) I doubt he would like the reaction to voters of getting involved after Parliament shot the idea down.

    This means that the real differences between the UK and the US are that the UK’s legislature has a spine and the UK’s electorate is less sold on the whole “blow up country X” style of foreign policy.

    None of that takes away from the fact that what Obama is proposing violates US law. A pity you have a Supreme Court that is generally unwilling to stop the federal government from violating the law.

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    • James, the primary pity is that Congress is refusing to exercise their war power. As LeeEsq notes above the legislative wing has the power and they could take it in hand at any time. The problem is that they don’t want to and no one, not even the courts, can actually force them to do it.

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      • To be more specific than “they don’t want to,” Congress, particularly the House, is not a coherent unified institution because of it’s district basis. No member of Congress does well by thinking about the position of Congress vis a vis the Executive, but only by thinking about what makes their own constituents happy. This is where the executive, by being a single actor, gains huge advantage over the intrinsically fractured Congress.

        Once upon a time when bigwig party leaders, including congressional leaders, played crucial roles in selecting their party’s presidential nominees, presidents were more controllable, so this institutional design flaw was papered over. But with the mass public selection of the nominees today presidents are not beholden to their party’s congressional leaders, and the flaw in the framers’ design has been exposed. (Or, rather, blame Gouverneur Morris, who wrecked Madison’s original design of congressional selection of the executive.)

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      • I used not to think that, but I’ve come round to doing so.

        And I get what you mean by utilitarian royalism, but I’ve decided to resist that and just loathe humanity for needing something like that.

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      • Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, released this statement: (my text cut from a Weekly Standard article).

        The Constitution requires that, barring an attack on the United States or an imminent threat to the U.S., any decision to use military force can only be made by Congress — not by the President. The decision to go to war — and we should be clear, launching a military strike on another country, justified or not, is an act of war — is reserved by the Constitution to the American people acting through their elected representatives in Congress.

        Since there is no imminent threat to the United States, there is no legal justification for bypassing the Constitutionally-required Congressional authorization. “Consultation” with Congress is not sufficient. The Constitution requires Congressional authorization.

        The American people deserve to have this decision debated and made in the open, with all the facts and arguments laid out for public review and debate, followed by a Congressional vote. If the President believes that military action against Syria is necessary, he should immediately call Congress back into session and seek the Constitutionally-required authorization.

        It would be highly unusual, but they could tell the military to ignore any attack orders given in contradiction to the Constitution. I’m not sure what kind of crisis that would start, though.

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      • They could George, but they wouldn’t even need to go that far. If the Dems in congress laid a horsehead on Obama’s door and said “The GOP are mustering an anti-war vote and we’re not gonna stop em” Obama wouldn’t attack. He’s simply too politically cautious.

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      • It would be highly unusual, but they could tell the military to ignore any attack orders given in contradiction to the Constitution.

        They could say it, but it would bear no weight. Generals do not report to Congress–the President is the Commander-in-Chief, and if Congress tried to tell the military which orders to obey then, ironically, it would be violating constitutional separation of powers.

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    • When Congress can’t even be bothered to return from their fucking summer recess to debate the issue, I don’t really think there’s anything beyond saying they’ve just abdicated their responsibilities. And that’s not even getting into the legality, since under the War Powers Resolution, it’s pretty easy to make the case that a short kinetic action is reasonably within bounds. Whether or not that’s GOOD law is open to debate, but it’s certainly legal and wouldn’t survive a SCOTUS challenge.

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      • Well, the numbers I saw were closer to 40/50 than 50/50… and given my assumption that the burden of proof be on the interventionists rather than on the non-interventionists, I didn’t see too many shenanigans with being less than impressed with 40/50.

        I also read “80 percent of Americans believe President Barack Obama should receive congressional approval before using force in Syria” as something different than wanting Congress to “express” itself. To be honest, I don’t see how failing to reconvene is not one hell of an expression in its own right.

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      • 50% approval when the proposed strike is described. I grant I was stretching the meaning on the 80% number, but I feel pretty confident that nearly that many Americans would like Congress to be available to exercise (or not exercise) its warmaking (or war forbidding) in a timely way when crises arise. But if Obama wants them to convene, he should invoke his authority to convene them, that is true too.

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      • Well, you have to look at the positions. Ignoring the whole Benghazi/Syria arms angle, Obama, Hillary, and Kerry have dithered on Syria, letting the situation worsen and fester just as Egypt was falling apart.

        Having painted himself into a corner with the “red line” comments, Obama feels compelled to launch missile attacks just to save his credibility, even though that’s like conducting real human sacrifices to support a religious myth.

        If the Republicans demanded that he can’t launch such strikes without Congressional approval, he would point to them as tying his hands when he really wanted to send a clear message against a tyrant using chemical weapons on civilians.

        Congressional Democrats would do a head count and probably make sure that such a Republican, anti-Obama measure would pass, but just barely, since many of them are in districts where opposing any military strike is a clear winner, while the rest can vote to support the President.

        A Republican sponsored measure would get spun as Republicans tying Obama’s hands and crippling the US militarily and diplomatically, even though they haven’t had the slightest influence on US foreign policy since Hillary was at State. Republicans know it’s a losing issue, politically, so they’re not going to raise a ruckus, and frankly agree that something needs to be done to remove Assad, but other than voting funds for rebel arms and humanitarian relief, can’t budge policy.

        Congressional Democrats aren’t going to raise a ruckus either, because if they sponsored a measure then they’d either have to vote to restrain their President (voting with Republicans against Obama) or vote for missile strikes on yet another country against Republican opposition.

        So what both parties in Congress seem to be happy with is making sure the public knows that any Syrian actions are Obama’s tar baby, and they’re not going to touch it.

        From Obama’s perspective, having Congressional Republicans refuse to let him take his wise and carefully calibrated actions would get him off the hook for not following through on his red-line statement. For him, that would probably be the best course because it wouldn’t make him look weak, it would just reinforce the narrative that in areas where he does fail, it’s because of Republicans, Bush’s legacy, RoveCheneyHaliburton, and white racism.

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      • It is low to decide to proceed upon, but that’s not what we were talking about. So low debate ought to be regarded as inappropriate? I guess that’s for you to decide for yourself, but as a matter of being something people should have an expectation that others feel the same about? No. For me? No, not too low to merit debate.

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      • Well, it looks like Congress reconvenes on September 9th (according to the Google).

        Is the situation in Syria that can be addressed by shooting some missiles from some boats one that can’t wait a week? Does the debate need to start *TODAY*? Is the assumption that the arguments on the pro-side are so very good given the last dozen years that the anti-side is effectively filibustering by not coming back early?

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      • I would say that it can wait myself, but the president is signaling that it can’t (though that may just be signaling), and many members of Congress seem to think that there might be reason to think that, since they are (bizarrely) calling on him to call them back to Washington to deliberate, rather than either saying that their disinterest in returning now reflects their rejection of the idea of military action, or asserting that, while they are undecided about that, the matter can clearly wait until the 9th (though a few have taken that position). They can just come any time they want; the more who independently show up, the more pressure they put on their colleagues to some and form a quorum. Obviously, independent decisions like that aren’t going to get a quorum formed & the issue is that there is no way in hell Boehner would survive cutting short the fundraising period of his members. But if warmaking power is their responsibility is their responsibility, then it’s their responsibility. At the very least, each member should be issuing a statement stating what his not returning to Washington ought to signal to Obama (i.e., Don;’t give a shit; Think it can wait until the 9th; Against strikes; or etc.).

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      • Jaybird, I don’t think it works this way. Ever since Congress abrogated its military power to the President; Presidents have been more or less free to do what they want with the armed forces. If Congress is against the President’s use of the armed forces in a particular matter than Congress is going to have to reassert its authority to declare war and make peace. The percentage of people for against a particular action is irrelevant.

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      • FWIW, I’m currently spitballing an idea for how Congress could address this issue of recesses and the massive judgement-based loophole that the War Powers Resolution basically is (i.e., by explicitly allowing unilateral Executive warmaking in the case of threats to the country, it explicitly authorizes the president to use his judgement to determine when that is the case, giving no detailed criteria that an advocate for impeachment or removal could rely on to try to enforce that condition on the self-defense grant in the WPR) in one fell swoop. If I can summon the sustained attention, perhaps I can get it made into a post by the time the bombs stop falling so that it’s still topical.

        A keyword in that post would be: CSC. I’ll let folks ruminate on what that letter sequence might stand for in my imagination.

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      • George made some pretty good points above insofar as a reconvention of Congress to hold a vote is likely, very likely, to result in a vote saying “no, we don’t authorize you to do anything” which would allow Obama the same amount of face to be saved as Cameron is enjoying.

        The problem is that there are a lot (A LOT) of precedents of Executives starting a kinectic action (see, for example, Libya) without Congress saying much of anything… and Obama would have more than enough cover for firing a handful of missiles now if he decided that that’s what he was going to do.

        The problem is that Russia’s against it (as opposed to “we won’t get involved”), China’s against it (as opposed to “we won’t get involved”), Great Britain has said that they won’t get involved. The only other country who is a permanent member of the UN Security Council who shows any enthusiasm is France… which means, pretty much, that UN support for intervention is, at best!, “mixed”. But, quite honestly, there ain’t much support there.

        It seems that Obama made himself look like he was going to do something, intervene once the “red line” had been crossed, but is now in a staring contest with Putin and he didn’t see that coming.

        It’s best for Obama if Congress comes back and votes “no”. He’ll be able to save face like Cameron.

        But we’re no longer talking about what’s best for Syria. We’re talking about what’s best for Obama.

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      • Not clear if your latest comment was written in light of the news of the last few minutes, but I’d have to say that Obama was aware he’s in a staring contest with both Putin and with Iran over this.

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      • …Also, strikes were never purported to be about what was best for Syria; they were about what is best for the world, including the U.S.. via the consequences for the deterioration of a norm against using chemical weapons, which obviously anyone can think is less important, or less on the line even, that Obama claims to.

        If you want to go down the road of talking about whether people in ower act in their own perceived interests, well, yeah. They do, a lot.

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      • Obama, Hillary, and Kerry have dithered on Syria, letting the situation worsen and fester

        The assumption seems to be that with early action we could have prevented the situation from worsening. The evidence for that is scant. But the combination of rah rah patriotism and anti-Obamaism can’t be bothered with logical argument.

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      • The rational argument is that we should have had a coherent Middle East policy instead of flailing around.

        We started out supporting Mubarak for months after the Arab Spring started, then pushing him aside, then supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as a force for Democracy, continuing to support them long after their expiration date, then denouncing the removal of their theocratic rule a military coup. Somehow, unbelievably, we made enemies of everyone involved.

        Our Libyan policy was “lead from behind”, conning the Soviets into supporting our “no fly zone”, which we promised was just to make sure Kadaffi didn’t bomb civilians, then immediately we turned it into a bombing zone as we provided close air support to the rebels. The Russians won’t fall for that one again. They noticed.

        We got conned into going into Libya because almost all of Europe’s nationalized oil companies have huge interests there, and they only decided to depose Kadaffi when he threatened to tear up their contracts and sell all his oil to the Chinese. Then Obama intervened on behalf of European oil interests. The region noticed.

        Then we started trying to make illegal weapons shipments from Benghazi, which is apparently why the CIA annex had so many people on the ground that we had to fly them out in commercial airliners. The whole region knows about that, too, and how we abandoned our ambassador because we were apparently too embarrassed to take any action and ordered our forces to stand down.

        In Iraq, the Obama administration stupidly shot their mouths off about the prosecution of US servicemen, completely destroying any hope of political support for a status of forces agreement in the Iraqi parliament. Those are almost always a given, negotiated quietly, and we have them in place with a huge number of the region’s countries. But not Iraq.

        That means the administration gave away our influence and our presence there, including our listening posts and security forces. That means we didn’t even have a way to influence the endless convoys of military supplies that Iran drove to Syria to support Assad. They drove there over the roads we used to patrol daily. We also had given away any influence we had with Sunni militias, who had been cooperating with us in Iraq and who could’ve easily fed us information from inside the Syrian rebellion and given us a measure of command and control to make sure Al Qaeda didn’t come to dominate it.

        We’ve stabbed Britain in the back time after time, from insulting their queen to giving away their top secret count of warhead numbers. We even gave the Russians the serial numbers on their warheads. They noticed.

        Israel has been betrayal after betrayal. We even published the details of their most secret nuclear installation on the web.
        No allies trust us anymore, and every time they turn around we’ve tried to make ties with all their enemies, holding secret meetings with the Taliban (Afghanistan noticed), the Muslim Brotherhood, and anyone else who wants to stir up trouble, on the idiotic college freshman theory that we should just be friends with people who speak with authentic, ethnic voices. Now it turns out that we’ve been spying on everybody, too.

        There was no room for a coherent Syria policy because everybody in the rudderless administration was too distracted with all the other disasters they’d caused, or were too busy either surfing or golfing. To this day nobody seems to know where Obama even was during the Benghazi attack.

        But now he wants to hurl some missiles, now claiming that they “will be effective tomorrow, next week or one month from now”. Unless the target is bridges, dams, and other stuff that can’t be moved, that’s just stupid. As always, they are trying to play catch up to dynamic events and failing at it. They react, and react stupidly, and then regional leaders come out and flat contradict the spin and lies they try to peddle. So everyone is pretty much sitting back to watch the next debacle.

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      • And I wouldn’t have had to go there if the administration wasn’t strikingly similar to Nigeria’s.

        Here is a Boston Herald article that says, in part, “Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will be viewed by history as one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of all time.

        We did have an army sitting on Syria’s doorstep, backed by indigenous Iraqi forces, with ties to both Sunnis and Shias. Now we’ve got a few destroyers bobbing somewhere offshore. The Syrians are not in the least intimidated by them, and Russia has just sent them advanced anti-ship missiles which undoubtedly need some free testing.

        In other news, Syria has reportedly executed the Republican Guard commander of their chemical weapons forces for his unauthorized strike, which seems to be in agreement with reports from Israeli intelligence, whose signals intercepts reported great confusion about who authorized the attack, and lots of screaming back and forth.

        Meanwhile Lebanese papers are reporting that the Saudis have been offering the Russians a deal to prop up oil prices in return for greater latitude against Syria. I guess someone has to lead.

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    • Providing a precedent for Congressional action is probably the best way to scrape some positive out of this situation. Executive decision on the use of force has gotten completely out of hand.

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    • Well, let’s hope the decision isn’t based on trumped up intelligence and outright lies like the ones John Kerry has been trying to sell. In his press conference, Kerry used as evidence a photo of the victims of Assad’s attack, but unfortunately the photographer, Marco di Lauro, noticed that the picture is actually one he took in Al Musayyib, Iraq on May 27, 2003.

      Top men.

      That’s as bad as how the Democrats used photos of Russian navy vessels as their backdrop at the 2012 DNC convention.

      In other confusion, US intelligence sources claim they knew about the impending attack three days before it was launched, whereas it seems Assad’s people didn’t find out about it till after the fact, based on intercepts. If we knew of the coming danger and Assad didn’t, who carries the heavier moral blame for it, Obama or Assad?

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