Human Rights

Progress: President Obama Breaks From America’s Ghost of Wars Past

On August 31, 2013, President Obama broke from past President’s lone war decisions, and followed the Constitution in regard to Syria.

On August 21, 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly deployed sarin gas on Syrian citizens, killing nearly 1,500 people, 426 of which were children.  Samples of hair and blood from victims, which were collected immediately following the attack by first responders, were sent to the United States for testing.  The results showed signatures of a sarin gas attack.

The decision to seek congressional approval for what the administration has said would be a short, limited engagement was a remarkable turn one day after Secretary of State John F. Kerry delivered an almost-prosecutorial case for military intervention. Obama made the decision Friday night following days of agonizing deliberations with members of his Cabinet, according to administration officials.

Prior to Saturday’s speech, President Obama was leaning heavily towards limited action against Syrian without Congressional approval.  The President had been convinced he had enough evidence to justify a strike.  Because of this, he sent Secretary of State John Kerry to gather up public support for such a strike.  However, after a walk around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Friday evening, President Obama decided to have Congress vote on a military strike, a senior White House official told NBC News.  On his way back from the walk, he called his advisors to inform them of his decision.  President Obama argues that the United States has a moral obligation to take action in Syria, but he will not do so until Congress has a chance to debate and vote on the use of military force.

According to the United States Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war.  They have used such a power eleven times in the past.  That has not stopped Presidents from engaging in military action.  The last time Congress declared war was in 1942, against Romania during World War II.

Since then, America has participated in some of the most bloody and brutal wars in its history.  Such wars include the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War.  Despite that, Congress never gave the approval of such a war.  Instead, they simply appropriated funds.  Recently, they gave President Bush complete freedom to wage war whenever and wherever he liked for any reason, under the Bush Doctrine.

When President George W. Bush went to Congress to pursue al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, he was authorized for such a search.  However, he took the approval as a blanket approval to, “take the fight to the enemy,” wherever he and his Administration felt a terrorist organization set up residence.  This led to a nearly 9 year war in Iraq that left an estimated total of 1 million dead, and a war in Afghanistan that is going on 11 years and continues today, and has killed an estimated total of 33,000+.  However, both numbers are unreliable, and likely much higher as civilian deaths and insurgent deaths are rarely recorded.

President Obama’s decision to go to Congress not only sets a precedent for future Presidents to follow the Constitution on engaging in war, it ends years of ignoring regular order and, hopefully, will limit future President’s likelihood of engaging in war for oil and the military industrial complex’s profits.

His announcement has sent a message to allied countries that America is ready to strike, but in a limited manner to enforce, “the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States.”

The announcement puts off a cruise missile strike that had appeared imminent, a prospect that had the region on edge and stoked intense debate in the United States, where many dread getting dragged into a new war.

Many Liberals, who are often critical of President Obama in regard to the speed at which he has ended the wars, cheered President Obama’s decision to seek Congressional authorization to strike Syria, even as many still oppose an attack.

Shifting the burden to Congress potentially gives the president a way out of the political bind he created last year when he said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States. It also buys the administration time to shore up domestic and international support for a strike that many came to see as a hasty response with potentially catastrophic consequences.

In the current atmosphere, it is increasingly unusual for the President to receive bipartisan praise from Congress.

“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” he said. “I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

While the President does not need Congressional approval for limited military intervention, his choice to send the matter to Congress has many congress members approving.

“It’s great news that President Obama is seeking congressional approval for military action, an important precedent for all future presidents,” said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “After years of societal and international norms being thrown out the door — and things like torture, violations of civil liberties, and war becoming normalized — today’s announcement is an important down payment on proper norms and regular order being restored.”

Meanwhile, the Administration has been having difficulty answering a basic question.  If the strikes are not aimed at chemical weapons sites, as doing so could potentially result in the release of even more chemical gas, what is the military objective of targeting other sites?  It has also led to questions on if the United States should be seeking the ousting of President Assad, despite not knowing where the rebels loyalty lies.  Serious questions remain on connections to Iran and al-Qaeda.  The removing of Assad could turn Syria in to a terrorist state, leading the United States to face even bigger problems down the line.

However, not everybody is thrilled with President Obama, of course.  Worst of all being Republican New York Representative Peter King.  While Representative King favors a military strike, he stated, “President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents.  The President doesn’t need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line.”

President Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t with Republicans.  If he does A, they want B.  If he does B, they want A.  Even when they agree with his decision, they find ways to oppose it.  Keeping with that, we have Southern belle Lindsey Graham and the Senator from the green room John McCain.

In a joint statement, Senator McCain and Senator Graham said they would not support limited action.

“We believe President Obama is correct that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons requires a military response by the United States and our friends and allies. Since the President is now seeking Congressional support for this action, the Congress must act as soon as possible.  However, we cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests. Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing. And it would send the wrong signal to America’s friends and allies, the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime, Iran, and the world – all of whom are watching closely what actions America will take.”

Further, Senator McCain in an interview on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno attempted to undermine President Obama’s actions, despite not knowing what his plan is yet.  “The president apparently wants to have a kind of a cosmetic strike, launch a  few missiles and then say ‘Well, we responded.'”

President Obama did not indicate what he would do if Congress rejected military action in Syria.  However, he is putting on a full court press for action.  President Obama said, “Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

He went on to say that not taking action could be a green light to other adversaries seeking to build nuclear weapons or biological weapons.  “Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare.”

It is important to remember that the nation’s deficit suffers from Bush’s two unnecessary and unfunded wars that are still accruing debt, and are estimated to add $4 trillion to the deficit on top of $2 trillion Bush’s folly in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost to date.

Congress will return to session on September 9, and will begin debating the Syrian issue then.  The Administration decided not to call Congress back because of the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah.  The Pentagon also signed off of the decision, stating that in doing so would not diminish U.S. military capability in the region.  However, we should cut Congress some slack.  They have been working hard.  They will work a total of 126 days throughout 2013, and passed a whopping 23 bills.  It is hard work becoming the least productive Congress in modern history.

As PoliticsUSA put it, “god forbid they give up any of their 239 days off just to debate and vote on authorizing action against a dictator who gassed hundreds of children to death in plain sight.”

According to an aide, there is an upside to the to the cooling off.  The delay will allow President Obama time to make his case to Congress, as well as keep trying to rally international support.

The British Parliament voted last week against intervening.  France offered to participate.  On September 1, the Arab League  called for the United Nations Security Council “to assume its responsibility and take all the deterrent and needed measures against this crime and all crimes of genocide” in Syria, Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby said in a Twitter post, referring to alleged chemical weapons use there last month.  Initially, the Arab League refused to back a strike.  It can be assumed that the reason for the change of support is because of President Obama’s announcement.

On September 5 and 6, 2013, St. Petersburg, Russia will host the G20 summit.  By delaying the attacks, it will allow the G20 to continue without military action dominating the news.  It should be noted that Russia is still standing behind Assad, and has warned the United States against a strike.

Many on both sides of the aisle will claim that what happened in Syria does not involve us.  That dead is dead, what does it matter the way it was done.  After all, they are in a civil war.  The issue is chemical gas kills indiscriminately.  When people are killed during a fire fight, there are targets.  Chemical gas blankets everybody in the way.  It only takes a pinpoint amount of sarin to kill somebody.  What was released, by accounts, was a small amount.  However, it managed to kill 1,429 innocent civilians, including 426 children, just sitting in their homes.  They had no chance to avoid their fate.

The Presidents announcement on Saturday appealed to other governments.  They were skeptical to United States intervention, and for good reason.  After President Bush’s war for ideology and profit, Presidential action in a foreign country is bound to come under tough scrutiny.  However, by sending the matter to Congress for a vote, it shows that President Obama is trying hard to shake the ghosts of this country’s past.  It also sends a message to American’s that we are slowly returning to order.

Here is a video President Obama announcing that he will send the issue of a Syrian strike to Congress in the Rose Garden on Saturday, August 31, 2013:

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