Syria: The New Turn

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin walking past Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and President Barack Obama during the G20 summit, St. Petersburg, Russia, September 6, 2013

In mid-September, a chorus of critics called President Barack Obama weak, indecisive, rudderless, and even a threat to the presidency for not ordering an immediate military strike on Syria. By seeking congressional approval for a strike, they claimed, he risked a debilitating political defeat at home. And now, by allowing the UN a chance to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, he has given a victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He should have just launched the missiles. That’s what a real American president would have done.

These claims are made not only by such persistent Obama naysayers as Michael Gerson and Charles Krauthammer. Obama’s own former defense secretary, Robert Gates, while opposing a strike as too risky, argued that going to Congress was a mistake. If Congress had said no to Obama, he maintained, “It would weaken him. It would weaken our country. It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.”

In fact, what Obama did was adhere to the Constitution—and by doing so, he has now opened the way for a much better resolution of the issue. The Constitution’s framers gave the power to declare war and authorize other hostile military action to Congress rather than to the president precisely because they knew that legislators would be less prone to go to war. George Mason, one of the framers, explained that he was against giving the president the power to go to war without Congress because he “was for clogging rather than facilitating war; but for facilitating peace.”

In this instance, going to Congress did clog war. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee took up the matter, and approved a resolution permitting military force, but authorization would have required separate debates and votes in both houses of Congress. In the breathing space created by this process, a possible diplomatic solution was forged. A proposal by Russia to bring Syria’s chemical weapons under international control—prompted by John Kerry’s reply to a reporter who’d asked if there was anything the Syrian regime could do to avert a strike—has now led to an agreement between Russia and the US to identify and eliminate the weapons without military force. That agreement in turn has led to an effort to secure a UN Security Council resolution aimed at ensuring Syria’s compliance. Meanwhile, as an initial step, the Syrian regime has agreed to bring its chemical weapons program under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Had Obama acted alone, he would have violated both the US Constitution, which requires prior congressional approval for a military intervention, and international law, which forbids the offensive use of force without Security Council approval. Instead, he is now pursuing a…

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