It is ironic that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., two days after he brokered the compromise on filibusters of executive nominations to avert the “nuclear option,” threatened to hold up the nomination of Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McCain was angered that Dempsey, during his public confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, refused to offer his personal opinion on what to do about Syria.
Dempsey gave the understandable explanation that he did not want publicly to influence opinion while the president was still considering the options. He added that the Armed Services Committee had already been briefed in a “classified setting” on what those options are.
McCain has made no secret of his support for imposing a “no-fly zone” and providing heavier armaments for the rebels than the administration has (secretly) pledged. Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who shares McCain’s views, sought to defuse the confrontation by asking Dempsey to provide the committee with an “unclassified list of options and the general’s assessment of the pros and cons of each,” without divulging his personal opinion on whether the U.S. should intervene militarily.
Dempsey responded by letter the following day, outlining five possible options and their costs. Put bluntly, they all carry risks and high costs — some up to $1 billion a month. The options include training, advising and assisting the opposition; conducting limited standoff strikes; enforcing a no-fly zone; establishing buffer zones; and controlling chemical weapons.
Dempsey warned that U.S. involvement could produce unintended consequences such as the collapse of a functioning state and possible inadvertent empowerment of extremist forces. While McCain was critical of Dempsey’s bleak assessments, the letter did satisfy his demands, and he lifted his hold on the nomination.
During his confirmation hearing, Dempsey said the U.S. should support the moderate opposition in Syria but made clear “the question of whether to support it with kinetic strikes ... is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation.”
The terms “kinetic strikes” and “kinetic actions” are euphemisms for dropping bombs and missiles on an enemy. The term was popularized in 2011 during the U.S.-NATO joint action to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to oust its dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. At the time, President Barack Obama did not ask Congress for a use of force resolution, nor did Congress offer one. Instead, the president relied on the blessings of the United Nations and the Arab League as justification.
Former Obama administration acting solicitor general Neal Katyal recently told a Wilson Center audience it is untenable to argue that kinetic actions against Libya are not acts of war “because our boots aren’t on the ground. If we dropped a nuclear bomb on Libya, our boots wouldn’t be on the ground ... [but] I think anyone would think that’s obviously military action.” That is “all the more reason,” he added, “why our founders put that responsibility in Congress.”
In his follow-up letter, Dempsey echoed that view, saying “the decision to use force” is “no less than an act of war.” Under the Constitution, Congress and the president share in deciding issues of war and peace, though Congress has often shirked its war-authorizing role.
Dempsey underscored the need for co-operation in his letter by noting that too often options are considered in isolation, when they could better be “assessed and discussed in the context of an overall whole-of-government strategy for achieving our policy objectives in consultation with our allies and partners.”
Recently, the House adopted an amendment by freshman Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., to the Defense appropriations bill barring funds for the introduction of U.S. military forces into hostilities in or over Syria “in contravention of the congressional consultation and reporting requirements” of the War Powers Resolution. Unfortunately, presidential reporting has never been the problem. What presidents have ignored, as does the amendment, is the WPR requirement for congressional approval of deployments lasting longer than 60 days. That is the real test of whether Congress is hewing to the Constitution or is content to read it aloud at the outset of each Congress and then set it aside.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.