Sometimes it seems that this country has the attention span of a dog presented with a new distraction. Shortly after the Newtown shootings in December, support to “control gun ownership” jumped 49%. (1) Squirrel! Just three months later, support for new gun control had dropped by a “double-digit margin.” (2) At the beginning of the year it seemed like some kind of confrontation with North Korea was inevitable as tensions seemed to escalate on a daily basis. Squirrel! Two young punks plant a homemade bomb at the end of the Boston Marathon and suddenly the North Korean threat has disappeared. Just weeks ago Egypt was the biggest foreign policy threat. Squirrel! Syria drops chemical weapons on its citizens and Egypt disappears from the headlines.
As a democracy, we get the government that we deserve and while the congress might not live up to our expectations, our representatives certainly mirror a nation in need of a daily dose of Ritalin. For example, in the aftermath of 9/11 only one Senator voted against the Patriot Act. (3) The House also passed the bill by an overwhelming margin. (4) Twelve years later (and after reauthorization votes) “lawmakers have said they were shocked by the scope” of the programs that the NSA has put into place as a result of this law. (5) Being shocked that the President used powers handed over to him is the equivalent of giving Lindsay Lohan the keys to your car and being surprised that it ended up being parked in a tree.
The same can be said about the Commander in Chief’s ability to send our military into battle. The Constitution very clearly gives Congress the power “to declare war.” (6) However, in the “hundreds of instances” that Presidents have used our military forces abroad, only five separate wars have been declared. (7) After ceding this right for much of our history, including in Korea and Vietnam, the legislative branch tried to assert itself with the War Powers Resolution, which states that “The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.” (8) Still, hostilities have taken place in Grenada, Panama, Bosnia and Kosovo, Haiti and Libya without congressional resolutions or repercussions. (9)
It would not be surprising if Obama joined all of his predecessors since the law passed in viewing “the War Powers Resolution as unconstitutional.” (10) Even though as a Senator he stated that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” it is highly unusual for a President to voluntarily give up any powers the office has accumulated. However, he did just that. After announcing that he had decided we should attack Syria for their use of chemical weapons, he surprisingly said that he would “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.” (11)
There are reasons why the President’s predecessors have found it necessary to enhance their power in the modern world and Obama’s decision does not come without risk. Most importantly, his ability to set foreign policy is jeopardized. The world needs to view whoever sits in the oval office as the person who speaks for America. If the congress refuses to back up Obama’s red line it not only weakens him but his successors as well. It has to be expected that the President’s power with Putin is diminished when Russian diplomats can “directly lobby the U.S. Congress and undercut President Barack Obama on Syria.” (12)
This is not to say that the Congress needs to be a rubber stamp in the decision making process. If after serious debate they reach a consensus that striking Syria is not in the best interest of our country, then they have an obligation under the Constitution to withhold consent. This can only be done if Congress, and by extension the American people as a whole, ignore the squirrel in the background and concentrate, for once, on the task at hand.
The large part of the responsibility for keeping the debate focused falls on the media. For far too long, the problem with the press has not been a left or right bias, but an inability to present information. Too often watching the news is like turning on a football game and only hearing about the player’s personal lives, contract talks and trade rumors. They are telling us everything except for what is going on in the field. We need less coverage of the politics behind the authorization vote and more information about what is going on in Syria.
The civil war in Syria is an extremely complicated situation. In reality, neither side is worth supporting. What is the best way to help the innocent citizens who are caught in the middle? What are the chances that this will spill over Syria’s borders and start to affect our allies? What role is Syria’s neighbors prepared to assume if we do get involved? What are the consequences if we do not get involved? How do we plan an attack that does not turn the Syrian people against us? How do we diminish Assad’s chemical weapon capabilities without turning the entire country into a wasteland? By collectively focusing on answering these questions we can move beyond a state of political paralysis and move forward together as a country.
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