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Will Congress Block an Attack on Syria?
Congress members are clamoring to be consulted, but few publicly oppose intervention.
'I think that Democrats are naturally reluctant to question a Democratic commander-in-chief,” Grayson continues. '[But] I feel comfortable making this judgment [against military intervention] based upon what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, and I think that’s part of my job.'
Advocates of using U.S. military force against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have long made their case without success. But following a chemical weapons attack on civilians allegedly committed by Assad’s forces last week, the United States inched closer to military intervention.
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack that left hundreds dead a “moral obscenity” and gave the strongest indication to date that the United States could be intervening militarily. As United Nations inspectors continue their investigations into last week’s attacks, President Obama says the United States has already “concluded” that the Assad regime is responsible.
Reports indicated that a U.S. attack on specific targets in Syria could take as place as soon as Thursday. But on Wednesday night, hours after delivering a speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama said in an interview that he had not yet come to a decision.
As the Obama administration mulls its course of action, opposition is slowly emerging in Congress, which is scheduled to be on summer recess until September 9. So far, nearly all of that opposition has focused not on the intervention itself, but on the executive branch’s lack of consultation with Congress.
Two main letters—one signed mostly by Republicans and the other signed by all Democrats—make essentially the same demand: that Congress be able to fulfill its constitutional obligation of approving any declaration of war. But Obama might argue that an attack on Syria would not amount to war. The president did not obtain congressional approval prior to the U.S. intervention in Libya in March 2011.
On Wednesday, Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) sent a letter to the White House demanding that the President consult Congress before taking any action. The letter has 140 signatories as of Thursday afternoon, including a handful of Democrats. The letter also calls for Congress to reconvene at the President’s request.
Meanwhile, on Thursday afternoon, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) sent another letter to the White House with the signatures of 54 Democratic members of Congress. The letter asks for “an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis.”
Asked if he thinks the letter's language is too weak, Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy and an opponent of military intervention in Syria, says, “It’s an organizing tool. It’s completely sensible. You try and take the thing you can rally the most people around.”
“Anything that slows the attack down, that delays it, provides time to argue against it,” says Dave Swanson, an anti-war activist and co-founder of RootsAction, an online progressive advocacy group. “And so anything that Congress does that helps delay [an attack] should be pursued.”
But while a growing number of legislators have raised objections on constitutional or procedural grounds, far fewer members of Congress have actually offered critiques of an eventual intervention itself. A recent poll found that a majority of Americans, 60 percent of respondents, were against intervening in Syria. Only 9 percent said they were in favor.
The United States' potential military partners have been checked by their own legislative bodies. The British Parliament returned early from its summer break to take up on debate on the issue, and on Thursday night, the House of Commons voted narrowly against a strike on Syria. French President François Hollande has called for a special legislative session on September 4.
The Obama administration, on the other hand, has not indicated it has any interest in having Congress return from its summer recess to take up debate on Syria. The president has reportedly briefed Speaker John Boehner, and the White House briefed select members in a teleconference on Thursday night. After the call, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he believed the administration had sufficient evidence of a chemical attack by Al-Assad, while Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama still had a “big sell” ahead to convince Congress and the public of the need for military action.
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies criticized the lack of opposition among congressional Democrats thus far.
“I think that there has been a pretty shameful reluctance from congressional liberals who don’t support this—when you talk to them they will tell you they don’t support it, they agree with General Dempsey [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] that it won’t work, they were glad early on that President Obama seemed so resistant to the pressures around him to go to war—but are saying nothing in public and are doing nothing to convene the Congress to move on this,” Bennis says. “I think it’s a very serious problem that this becomes a partisan issue, that we’re only gonna fight against it if the other party is doing it.
“The irony is members of Congress and the president do not face political risks to say no to intervention in Syria,” says Bennis, pointing to the polling data. “We have to recognize some of that opposition is for really bad reasons. … We can’t pretend it’s all because people understand either the legal or the moral implications, but nonetheless it’s not a political risk at the public level.”
As of Thursday afternoon, only three Democratic members in Congress have come out publicly against a potential intervention.
“While the use of chemical weapons is deeply troubling and unacceptable, I believe there is no military solution to the complex Syrian crisis,” Barbara Lee said in a statement on Facebook. Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force in September 2001.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in a statement, “We must … remain very cautious about military intervention in light of the terrible price our soldiers and their families have already paid in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
But the most vocal opponent on the Democratic side so far is Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). “I don’t understand or see how this has anything to do with us,” Grayson tells In These Times. “This is one of those rare occasions when I have to agree with Donald Rumsfeld. It just doesn’t implicate any vital national security interest of the U.S. Secondly, the evidence that the Syrian High Command deliberately authorized the use of a chemical weapons attack on its own population is at this point ambiguous.”
“I’m sure that the Republicans are salivating over the opportunity to secondguess the President after whatever happens, happens. And I think that Democrats are naturally reluctant to question a Democratic commander-in-chief,” Grayson continues. “I feel comfortable making this judgment based upon what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, and I think that’s part of my job. I’m open to any sort of discussion, but the President hasn’t made the case to me, or to the American people about why this action in Syria implicates any vital national interest.”
The Progressive Democrats of America pushed for members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to sign on to Barbara Lee’s letter. PDA Director Tim Carpenter attributes the lack of opposition on the Democratic side of the aisle to a combination of factors: the fact that Congress is on recess, a general reluctance to criticize a president of the same party, and hesitation on the part of some legislators to take a strong stand before being briefed officially on the matter.
“I’m not shocked by any means,” Carpenter says of the lack of opposition. “I think it underscores the important work we have to do. The question for [us] is where is the rest of the Congressional Progressive Caucus? It’s one thing to say you’re a member of the Progressive Caucus, it’s another thing to lead. We worked the entire Progressive Caucus, all 72 members strong, to be signing that letter, so there’s a gap right now.”
Paul Kawika Martin of Peace Action says the relative lack of opposition in Congress might also have to do with the way the administration has advertised the potential intervention. President Obama has said he is not interested in a ground invasion and that any intervention would be short-term and limited in scope.
“There’s certainly no appetite in Congress for boots on the ground,” Martin says. “I think there are some who would normally be opposed to various types of military intervention that may support Tomahawk missiles from the Mediterranean Sea … If it doesn’t have to do with troops on the ground, I think some Democrats are less likely to oppose Obama.”
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer based in northeast D.C., covering Congress, corruption and politics in Washington. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect. He's also the keyboard player for Betsy & The Bicycles, proud to be a former In These Times intern and recovering from his senior history thesis. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.