As the situation in Syria has continued to devolve, the calls for U.S. intervention have continued to grow louder. Recently, Sen. John McCain became the first U.S. official to call publicly for U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria.
With all due respect to my friend and colleague, Mr. McCain, I must categorically disagree with these calls. Anyone who knows my 30 years of service on the House Foreign Affairs Committee knows that I am certainly not a dove when it comes to protecting the national security interests of the United States. However, I have never supported the idea that the United States is or should be the world’s policeman. If we accept that role, we are committing to act and to put our soldiers and civilians in harm’s way where our nation’s interests may be very modest at best.
Where are the soldiers, the fleets or ships and airplanes? Where is the endless source of money to do the job and do it properly? If it is - as Mr. McCain appears to be arguing - the responsibility of the United States to intervene anywhere a regime commits violence against its population, then we have been derelict in our duty to the world. Then we would owe a profound apology to the people of Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, North Korea, Burma and countless other despotic regimes that have, to this point, been spared the wrath of our military might.
The violence in Syria is appalling, and Syrian President Bashar Assad certainly is no friend of the United States. But Syria has not declared war on the United States or attacked the U.S., our territories, possessions or armed forces. By what right, then, do we attack Syria? Regrettably, with the voices for intervention growing louder and President Obama’s poll numbers sliding, I fear the administration may not worry about whether we have the right to attack Syria if it thinks that doing so will help the president’s re-election efforts. I would remind the president that Mr. McCain does not speak for the U.S. Congress. I also would remind the president, contrary to the assertion of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta before the Senate Armed Services Committee, that international authorization does not trump congressional authorization.
The power to declare war - and make no mistake, attacking Syria amounts to an act of war - is perhaps the most profound power granted to the U.S. Congress. A review of the notes of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention makes it clear that the framers of our Constitution firmly believed that the momentous consequences of initiating armed hostilities should be called up only by the concurrence of both houses of Congress. In contrast to the English system, the framers did not want the wealth and blood of the nation committed by the decision of a single individual. The War Powers Act was enacted into law over a presidential veto - not an easy thing to accomplish - to fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States in requiring the president to seek the consent of Congress before the introduction of the United States armed forces into hostile action.
Section 2(c) of the War Powers Act provides that no attempt by the president to introduce the U.S. armed forces into hostile action may be made under the War Powers Act unless there is “(1) a declaration of war, (2) a specific authorization or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possession, or its armed forces.”
The Constitution and the War Powers Act are not suggestions, they are the law of the land. The law the president of the United States and every member of Congress and senator swears to protect and to defend.
On Sept. 11, 2001, our nation was attacked. President George W. Bush still sought authorization from Congress before going into Afghanistan. Similarly, Mr. Bush sought congressional authorization before Iraq. Mr. Bush respected the authority of Congress and the limitations of the Constitution. If Mr. Obama is contemplating taking Mr. McCain’s suggestion, as I fear he is, he is required before one plane leaves a hangar or carrier or one American bullet is fired to seek the formal authorization of Congress. If he does anything less, he will be violating his oath of office and committing an arguably impeachable offense.
This cannot be said enough: The Constitution is not a list of suggestions, it is the law of the land. If the president and Mr. McCain want to go to war in Syria, they must come to Congress for permission first.
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, is a senior member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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