Sunday, September 1, 2013

Syria and the Expansion of Executive Authority

Just a little thing to keep in mind regarding Syria and armed intervention: 

President Obama said today that he would ask Congress for permission before going into Syria, although he maintained that he does not need to do so. That latter fact puts him in the category of every single president since Richard Nixon, all of whom have maintained that the 1973 War Powers Act--pretty much the only piece of legislation on the books, at least as far as I'm aware, that sets realistic limits on the power of the President to commit American troops to combat--is unconstitutional and we don't need it. (Presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan, have usually ignored even that flimsy restraint without consequences.)

If you're concerned about the gradual accumulation of power by the executive branch, which has been happening essentially since the U.S. was created, that's a good place to start. Think about it for a second: Obama is maintaining that he has the power to make war upon a foreign country... and it is a war, if a small and one-sided one, euphemisms be damned... without the consent of Congress. Even though it says right there in the Constitution, in Article I, section 8, clause 11, that Congress shall have the power to declare war.

Any justification of that expansion of Presidential authority must inevitably come back to some form of the following argument: "Well, making war is a big deal. But little things like this, where we only kill a few thousand people while losing perhaps none of our own, that isn't a big deal. Congress doesn't even need to be consulted for something so minor."

You know why the power to make war is vested in the most fractious and squabbling branch of government? Because the founders, in my interpretation, set things up so that when the United States goes to war, there's supposed to be a really, really good reason. Like a "The survival of the country is at stake" kind of reason. This is not it. The most important thing we'll be defending is our credibility. Is that worth killing a few thousand people for? Is that worth making war over?

Coda: Chemical weapons aren't the reason, either. As we just found out, the U.S. is perfectly fine with letting an ally use chemical weapons if it serves our interests, and ignored Saddam's later use of them against his Kurdish population. The fact that we publicly said we didn't want them used is nothing more or less than a threat to our credibility. If the use of chemical weapons is so abhorrent and such a threat to people around the world, why is the United States's closest ally saying "I'm not going to get into that heaping pile of crazy?" Why hasn't the international community responded with something more than empty outrage? Because it doesn't matter. It's an atrocity whether the victims are being killed with bullets or with poison gas.

Again, think about this for a second. The best estimates are that more than one hundred thousand people had died in this war before chemical weapons were ever used, as far as we know. If the deaths of all those people didn't prompt an intervention, why is the use of poison gas going to do it? It's not like the people killed by gas are any more dead than the people blown up with explosives, or killed with knives, or guns, or anything else. The United States made a foreign policy choice not to get into the war when it began, and we've stuck to it for two years, because a) it's hard to see how intervention could end the war in a way that helps, and b) Syria is only marginally relevant to our national interests. The use of a new and different way of killing people does not change those reasons at all.

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