In 2012, shortly before the Presidential Debates, the Obama campaign aired a commercial entitled “Rebuilding,” in which the president makes the argument for war fatigue. “A decade of war that cost us dearly. And now, for the president, a clear choice,” the ad stated. “President Obama ended the Iraq War. Mitt Romney would have left 30,000 troops there and called bringing them home ‘tragic.’” The ad pointedly criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertion that the president’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was Obama’s “biggest mistake.”
“It’s time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding here,” the ad concluded.
A large majority of Americans have never known their country at peace. Since the nation’s founding in 1776, the United States has spent just 21 calendar years not committed to an offensive or defensive military action abroad or domestically. Every American president has either authorized or supervised the use of military force during his administration. The longest single period of peace in American history was the five years of isolationism — 1935 to 1940 — that accompanied the Great Depression.
This mentality of war has became a heavy yoke for most Americans. In light of 12 years of war in Afghanistan and a now-finished costly war in Iraq that is increasingly being seen as having been fought on false premises and being unnecessary, Americans have grown extremely trigger-shy towards the initiation of new international intervention. According to a June Quinnipiac survey, 61 percent of all respondents felt that it was not in the national interest for the U.S. to be involved in the war in Syria and nearly 6 in 10 felt that the U.S. military supporting the Syrian rebels was a bad idea.
The Quinnipiac survey’s results are supported by previous surveys from Gallup, Pew Research Center and CBS News/New York Times.
“In past foreign crises, polls have shown that support for U.S. action changes depending on three things: whether ground troops might become involved, whether the U.S. is acting alone or as part of an international coalition, and whether there is a specific reason to use U.S. force. The reason may be forward-looking or in retaliation for something that already happened, but the public doesn’t like writing blank checks,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
An August 23 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only nine percent of respondents favor the administration engaging militarily in Syria.
Congress and the art of war
In light of the fact that United Nations has not yet released the results of its chemical weapons inspections, the idea that the president is considering intervention without the consultation of Congress is growing increasingly unpopular. A NBC News/Hart Research Associates poll conducted Wednesday shows that 79 percent of all respondents feel that the president should receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria.
Last week — partly in recognition of this — the president submitted a military force resolution to Congress to seek permission to engage in a combatant role in Syria. Both Democrats and Republicans feel that the White House’s proposal is too open-ended and could segue into prolonged fighting. The Senate has indicated that it will redraft the amendment, while the House has yet to make its intentions known. Congressional debates on the resolution are scheduled for Sept. 9.
If the president have chosen to act in an unilateral manner, he may have found himself on unsure ground. Under the War Powers Resolution, the president cannot enter into military hostilities unless there is a national emergency caused by an attack on American soil or military, Congress declares war or Congress offers statutory authorization for the attack. Unless at least one of these conditions are met, foreign military action by the United States is illegal and is technically an impeachable offense.
Many have incorrectly interpreted the War Powers Resolution to mean that the president must notify Congress within 48 hours if he chooses to attack and must receive Congressional approval if the mission lasts more than 60 days. This is only true for a retaliatory strike. For a military operation that bears no immediate reflection toward the national security, the president does not have the authority to engage unilaterally.
The problem comes in the fact that Congress rarely hold presidents to the War Powers Resolution. In 2011, President Obama authorized air strikes in Libya without congressional consent and in 2003, President Bush engaged in hostilities in Iraq for six months before consulting Congress. While some members of Congress complained in both cases, no acts of condemnation were passed. Some feel this has created a precedent for how a president engages foreign military actions.
“It seems to me that it is in U.S. interests to overthrow a regime that has used chemical weapons on its citizens, attacked Israel twice, supported insurgents against us in Iraq, and serves as a proxy for Iran and as a conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” said John Yoo, who served in the Office of Legal Counsel under the Bush White House and who helped to form the legal justification for the Second Iraqi and Afghan Wars, in an email to POLITICO in defense of the Obama administration moving without congressional approval. “We need not wage war only to defend the territorial United States. We should, and often have, wage war for foreign policy reasons that make the world a better place for the United States.”
“War fatigue” and a call for caution
More recently, Congress has grown frustrated by what is being seen as an overreach of presidential authority and a lack of communication from the White House. “It hasn’t been communicated what the strategy is — what’s the end-state that any U.S. involvement is seeking,” said Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), a 29-year Army veteran and former West Point instructor. “What’s the strategy to accomplish that end-state? What would be the objectives — including military objectives — that support that strategy and what would a campaign look like to pursue those objectives? Four combat tours to Iraq, some of the rebels we’re talking about supporting shot at my paratroopers.
“So I think — we don’t have enough situational awareness to know what’s going on on the ground and understanding that would allow for a thoughtful campaign that would allow for the accomplishment of these objectives and strategic gains.”
The last time Congress declared a state of war was in 1942. Since that time, Congress has approved the presidential use of force via authorizations — typically, after troops have already been deployed. Congress bipartisanly has balked at the use of force in Syria — a sentiment that is also being felt in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, which recently rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for military intervention in Syria.
Policeman of the world
The possibility that Syrian President Bashar Assad may have authorized the use of chemical weapons on his people, however, changes the calculus of the situation. When asked if military action would be justified if it could be proven that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, two-thirds of all Americans supported this idea, according to the CNN poll. However, only 16 percent of Americans, according to the poll, are sure that Syria has chemical weapons; a marked decrease from the 56 percent of Americans that thought Saddam Hussein had chemical or biological weapons and the 85 percent that thought military action in Iraq was justified upon the presence of weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
This represents the new atmosphere of caution that has embraced the nation post-Bush. “I think the concern here is, for those of us who worked on Iraq during the Bush administration, someone like myself who helped set up the [Director of National Intelligence], is the whole issue of how confident can we be of our information, and do we have a sufficient basis to justify action?” said John Negroponte, director of national intelligence under George W. Bush, adding, “You’ll remember we went to the [U.N.] Security Council convinced we were right about Saddam’s having weapons of mass destruction. That turned out not to be correct.”
In light of growing international detachment from committing to military force against Syria, the White House is considering unilateral action. Former President Jimmy Carter considers this a mistake. “A punitive military response without a U.N. Security Council mandate or broad support from NATO and the Arab League would be illegal under international law and unlikely to alter the course of the war,” he wrote in a statement. “It will only harden existing positions and postpone a sorely needed political process to put an end to the catastrophic violence.”
“All should seek to leverage the consensus among the entire international community, including Russia and Iran, condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria and bringing under U.N. oversight the country’s stockpile of such weapons,” he wrote.
There may be justification — both popularly and politically — for the United States to back away from its role as ‘policeman of the world.’ In light of past mistakes, there are apt reasons not to allow the panic of the situation to override caution and situational vetting. The White House can only make the situation worse running into this metaphorical fire unprepared.
“Maybe we’re all prisoners of our own experiences,” Negroponte said. “Certainly, what I feel I learned about what happened a decade ago is, we paid a very high political price both domestically and internationally for having preemptively acted without a sufficient base of international support. That is really what preoccupies me the most.”
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