Opinion: A Don’t-Blame-Us Congress Ducks on Syria

Be bipartisan and authorize a war

Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., right, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., conduct a news conference in the Capitol to introduce an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban on May 25, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., right, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., conduct a news conference in the Capitol to introduce an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban on May 25, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted June 20, 2017 at 5:03am

It is, of course, not nearly as important as the struggle in GA-6 that is testing what happens when you inject more than $50 million into a single House race and batter the voters into submission with attack ads.

And the topic could not possibly compete with the learned analyses of Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — a TV show that was probably the biggest broadcast since King Edward VIII went on British radio to announce his abdication to marry “the woman I love.”

Still, it is worth noting that on Sunday an American jet downed a Syrian plane on a bombing run against U.S.-backed forces on the ground near the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. This incident marked the first time in this century that the United States had shot down a hostile aircraft.

Reflecting the complexities of war in the Middle East, Russia Monday issued a belligerent statement in support of its Syrian allies. Russia shut off the military hotline with the U.S. designed to prevent collisions and misjudgments over Syrian airspace — and, more alarmingly, announced that it would be targeting U.S. and allied planes.

Feeling a little chill

This is one of those moments brimming with 1970s deja vu. Not only are we poised to re-enact Watergate in Washington, but we are also getting a whiff of Cold War brinksmanship in Syria. What makes the current round of threats and counter-threats so confusing is that, I suspect, most Americans don’t even know that we are fighting in Syria.

It wasn’t too long ago that Barack Obama was proud of not being sucked into the Syrian civil war, despite Bashar Assad’s unspeakable brutality and a World War II-scale refugee crisis.

But last year Barack Obama reneged on his many pledges not to have “boots on the ground in Syria” by sending 250 troops to battle the Islamic State there. And in April, Donald Trump unleashed a devastating Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian airfield after Assad’s government had again used chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

Purists may wonder about the legal basis for Obama and now Trump opening the Syrian front without congressional approval. All these actions have been justified by exceedingly liberal interpretations of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was overwhelmingly approved by Congress after 9/11. Of course, almost 16 years later, Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda has faded from view and American military strategy has changed beyond recognition since the initial invasion of Afghanistan.

All of this history is not an argument for inaction against the Islamic State. Nor is it an occasion for offering any sympathy for the ill-fated Syrian pilot who was bombing U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab soldiers attempting to fight their way to Raqqa.

What is deeply concerning, though, is the continuing congressional refusal to write a new authorization to cover the war against the Islamic State and U.S. intervention in Syria.

Obama sent draft language to Congress in 2014. And a year later, Obama declared in a speech about the Islamic State (which he called ISIL), “If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.”

The silence from Capitol Hill has been deafening. True, there have been dogged bipartisan efforts — most notably by Tim Kaine and Jeff Flake — to update the 2001 AUMF. But they have aroused about as much enthusiasm as a proposal to eliminate congressional parking spaces and turn the House and Senate gyms into exercise facilities for reporters.

This is an issue where it is impossible to blame congressional inaction on the usual suspects like Super PACs, venomous partisanship and Trump’s tweets. The best explanation, alas, is that most members of Congress are too timid to risk casting a vote that could come to haunt them like approving George W. Bush’s Iraq War.

Instead, Congress has done something that defies standard theories of bureaucratic behavior — it has freely given up institutional power. After years of feckless efforts to stop the Vietnam War, Congress belatedly asserted its congressional powers in 1973 with the passage of the War Powers Act that requires explicit authorization for military engagements longer than 60 days.

It might be one thing to defer to the White House on all interventions abroad if there were bipartisan confidence in the president and the Trump national security team. Instead, with the conspicuous exception of Defense Secretary James Mattis, it is hard to find a major Trump figure who commands respect on Capitol Hill. Even national security adviser H.R. McMaster has become a public-relations puppet for the president as he denounces anti-Trump news stories on command.

A little leadership, please

Against this backdrop, the Senate, in theory, could take the lead in helping define American policy in Syria and against the Islamic State. The model could be the series of high-profile and high-minded hearings that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by William Fulbright, held during the Vietnam War.

After last week’s shootings on an Alexandria ball field, there was the usual flurry of heartfelt sentiments about making Congress a more collegial institution. But the ideological gap between the two parties is too great to believe there will ever be a meeting of the minds on health care or even taxes.

But neither Republicans nor Democrats hold similarly rigid views on Syria and ISIS. That’s why the best demonstration of bipartisanship would be for Congress to follow the lead of Kaine and Flake and finally write legislative language to authorize the war that we are already semi-legally waging on the ground and in the skies over Syria.