An interesting debate emerged last Sunday on Bob Schieffer’s round table discussion the last half hour of the ever popular Face the Nation on CBS. With the entire show dedicated to the proposed air strikes against Syria in protest to President Assad’s chemical weaponry. President Obama failed to get congressional approval to use military action against Syria, backing the president into a corner due to his red line of diplomacy, as it were. With the President of the United States being commander and chief, he does have the authority to authorize a strike without congressional approval. Russian President Vladimir Putin worked out [an international] deal for Assad to surrender most of his chemical weapons, making the world safer but increasing the power of the Russian nation throughout the world. With the days of Gorbachev and Yeltsin far in our rear-view mirrors now, U.S. relations with Russia are currently on eggshells as Putin, although not eager to return to hardline Communism of the twentieth century, wants Russia to be a military superpower once again.
When our Founding Fathers set up the guidelines for separation of powers and the president’s power as commander in chief, it was hard-coded in our constitution that declaring war on another nation would require an act of congress, but the president as commander in chief would be able to take military action congressional approval if he deemed it necessary. It almost makes giving war power to congress superfluous. The only real difference is a formal declaration of war allows the wartime powers of the Federal Government to kick in—such as temporarily taking over airlines, railroads, and other forms of transportation, the authority to instigate rationing, and the authority to instigate a draft without congressional approval. Two big questions came up at this debate: (1) Did President Obama set a precedent where he now ask congress before imposing military action on any foreign land and (2) What is the obligation of our elected officials to override the will of the people who elected them to represent then and in what circumstances?
I think if President Obama is to be effective for the reminder of his [final] term in office, he did burn a bridge. If there is a crisis in Iran or North Korea, he will look fickle or foolish if he makes a decision to invade or strike such places without congressional approval. And it may be a necessary evil, in which case he will do it and sacrifice himself as an effective leader of the American people within the United States to ensure freedom and democracy in this country are not jeopardized. The saving grace is he is not eligible to run for re-election in 2016 so he can minimally function until then.
This precedent should not have a drastic affect on future Presidents of the United States. Every incoming president differs somewhat in philosophy, even if from the same political party, even if he (or she) served as vice president under the predecessor. The world changes rapidly. Besides, the necessity to instigate federal wartime powers every time there is a squabble in a foreign land is far from necessary. Up to and including World War II, we followed the advice of George Washington; maintained isolationism policies during peacetime and set up no permanent alliances. World War Ii was the last of the American wars with respected to the most rigid definition of a war versus a conflict. Following World War II were the Korean Conflict, the Viet Nam Conflict (our one mistake), and Desert Storm (Iraqi Conflict). The War on Terror after 9-11 was borderline but America survived without implementing wartime power which saved the Federal Government millions if not billions.
With the advent of permanent alliances such as NATO, our obligation to the State of Israel established 1948, and losses of natural resources on American soil, the world economy, and the instability in many foreign lands, congress would be wiser to not be too quick to instigate formal declarations of war, but rather monitor the sitting president’s commander in chief power and act accordingly should a sitting president abuse his power.
The second question is even more interesting. Did the Republican led House of Representatives in the ongoing war between the parties oppose Obama’s proposed strike for the sake of opposing to maintain party dominance? If that were the case, how do you explain the fact he did not get better results from the Democrat controlled Senate? For that matter, only about 6% of civilian American citizens (not holding public office) supported the president’s proposed action against Syria. All things equal, congress did what they were supposed to do—voted according to the will of their constituents who elected them. Our Founding Fathers would be proud of them—but only until the day the relationship between consensus and correctness breaks down.
There is a reason our Founding Fathers chose the representative form of democracy, modeled a lot after the Roman Republic, even though it failed and fell to Caesar, versus establishing a national government operated like one massive New England Town Meeting. What happens when the majority favors policy that can lead to a fatal mistake? The ultimate conundrum associated with American Democracy is that (1) it must maintain its existence as the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and at the same time (2) must maintain its existence as a Democracy.
There is no way around it: dictatorships are made of iron and democracies are made out of glass. A democracy can vote in a dictator, just as the Weimar Republic in Germany voted in Adolph Hitler who ended the Weimar and declared himself absolute Fuhrer. But for a dictatorship to become a democracy, blood has to be shed as it was when we won our independence from Great Britain in 1781. Though our Founding Fathers understood all the flaws in the Roman system, the deemed it the lesser of all evils. Therefore, our elected representatives are obligated to go with the will of the people electing them most of the time, but must be willing to take exception in certain instances and must be willing to risk not being re-elected for the sake of doing the right thing.
The underlying question now becomes with respect to the Syrian crisis, did we do the right thing, the wrong thing, or did we do the best thing but paid a price?