Over the past few days, Congress has held hearings with the highest levels of government concerning the Obama administration’s plan to use force in Syria to enforce the international moratorium against the use of chemical weapons.
While Congress holds hearings and the administration reinforces its position through Secretary of State John Kerry, constitutional lawyers are arguing over the necessity for the president to obtain an authorization for the use of military force for a limited strike against a foreign country.
Once the dust has settled on the Syria question and U.S. destroyers exit the eastern Mediterranean, congressional and presidential scholars will be left with one question: What precedent is established by Congress demanding a vote and the president acceding to it?
The Constitution empowers the president as the sole commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. Following the protracted U.S. engagement in Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which prevents the president from engaging in a military conflict for more than 60 days without the consent of Congress.
Most experts believe the U.S. isn’t contemplating a full-scale engagement in Syria, but rather a limited strike option such as the launch of cruise missiles from aboard naval vessels.
Under normal circumstances, a limited cruise missile strike should not take more than a few hours and therefore doesn’t fall under the War Powers Act. However, Congress is demanding that the president seek its consent and the administration has taken the question to Congress.
This action is likely to limit future military engagements by the U.S. because it establishes a precedent to seek congressional approval, which is never easy to obtain. Over the past four administrations, the U.S. has been involved in several conflicts and Congress has rarely voted to approve the action.
Despite the lack of historic precedent for congressional approval, a clear majority of the American people are in favor of it. That clear majority has remained steady since 1973.
A Gallup poll in November 1973 found that 80 percent of Americans supported the need for congressional approval for the president to order military action. Another Gallup poll in May 2008 found nearly the same result, with 79 percent of American supporting the requirement.
In fact, the 2008 poll showed that a majority of Americans support congressional consent in nearly all cases except the rescue of Americans abroad (40 percent) and if the U.S. were attacked (46 percent). Only slightly less than 50 percent supported the president-only position in cases of humanitarian missions related to natural disasters.
Polls conducted around historic military actions, including those ordered by President George Bush in Iraq and President Bill Clinton in Kosovo, showed majority support for congressional approval. A 2011 Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of Americans believed the president should have sought congressional approval for the U.S.’s military action in Libya.
Given this historic context, President Barack Obama’s decision to take the Syria issue to Congress for a vote is establishing a precedent that will last long beyond his presidency. Future administrations will be less likely to pursue military action given the need for, and difficulty involved in, gaining congressional assent.
Obtaining a congressional green light means that administrations must lobby Congress, hold classified and de-classified briefings, have a short and long-term game plan post-engagement, and be forced to achieve some international and domestic consensus over the use of force. All of these are time consuming and difficult to achieve, even without a pending international crisis.
Increasing the difficulty of military action is good news for peace advocates and bad news for neoconservatives pursuing a flexible military commanded by the president. The type of operations carried out in Kosovo and Iraq will become less and less frequent and more dependent on congressional and international sanctioning of military action.
For those advocating an adaptive and rapidly responding U.S. military, it seems public sentiment and presidential precedent is lining up against them. It is no longer case of, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” or, “Shoot first, ask questions later.”
While congressional approval limits flexibility and responsiveness, it does mean that the U.S. will need a long-term strategy and exit strategy before launching missiles.
James Lewis is political and communications consultant in Washington and former national security analyst at Robert Weiner Associates.