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Undeclaring War on Syria
In a fairly remarkable defeat to the UK Conservative Party's Prime Minister David Cameron, the British Parliament voted against intervention in Syria in a preliminary vote today. That could change in a subsequent vote, but, hey, at least they met, debated and voted! And that was after Cameron's government actually, publicly offered their legal basis for such intervention and an intelligence assessment [PDF] they claim supports it.
Meanwhile, back in these United States, John Nichols details the several bi-partisan --- and surprisingly robust --- Congressional letters calling on President Obama to seek Congressional approval before taking military action against Syria. So far, over 150 members of Congress have signed on to those efforts.
In all, the New York Times concluded this morning (even before the vote in Parliament): "momentum for Western military strikes against Syria appeared to slow."
While a healthy portion of the U.S. Congress members speaking up are progressive Democrats, interestingly (though, perhaps, not surprisingly?), there are far more Republicans, this time around, joining the effort to call on the President to wait for an Article 1, Section 8 declaration of war from Congress --- or, at least, some form of authorization from the Legislative branch --- as clearly envisioned (an actual conservative would say "required") by the U.S. Constitution.
It's nice to see Congress, this time around --- at least more than 150 of its members --- calling on the President to do the right thing. On the other hand, Congress has its own responsibility here...
They are currently not in session. And while one of the letters [PDF], written by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and signed by 53 colleagues as of Thursday, promises Obama: "We stand ready to work with you," and another Congressional letter [PDF], the one with the most signatories on it (140 as of Thursday afternoon), written by Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA) vows: "Congress can reconvene at your request," the leadership in Congress --- Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid --- haven't bothered to call members back to session. They are perfectly capable of doing so without waiting for a request from the President.
Moreover, it's also noteworthy that the members who have signed on to these letters have not, themselves, called on their leadership in Congress to reconvene either.
For his part, Boehner has demanded the President offer "meaningful consultation with members of Congress." A vague statement, with little or no legal value, that TIME's Alex Altman and Zeke Miller argue "suggests Boehner isn’t eager to take a vote that could put him on the wrong side of history if the situation sours."
So there's plenty of jockeying for position, moral high ground, Constitutional correctness, etc., but, to date, very little leadership in the White House, among senior members of Congress, or even amongst the rank and file there, to go the extra mile to ensure the Constitutional and/or legal thing actually happens before Obama decides to go it alone. Or, at least, that doesn't appear to be the case. The President has reportedly been "consulting" with Congressional leaders, for whatever that's worth. (Which, according to the Constitution, would be nothing.)
You might think the White House would be the one to take the lead on this, given the guy who heads the place once said, as a U.S. Senator running for President in 2007: "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat."
So, perhaps we should watch for familiar words, like "imminent threat", to start appearing soon. As is, the British legal case and purported evidence for it, is already looking very familiar, and just about as weak as it was when offered in 2003.
The British paper laying out the Cameron government's assessments of a large scale chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime says [emphasis ours], "there is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. The factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible."
The NYTimes reports Cameron admitted to Parliament during today's debate that there was "'no smoking piece of intelligence' proving culpability."
And his intelligence assessment also notes the odd timing of Assad purportedly launching a massive chemical weapons attack only after chemical weapons inspectors from the U.N. were finally allowed in country. "There is no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of [Chemical Weapons] on an apparently larger scale now, particularly given the current presence in Syria of the U.N. investigation team," the assessment reads.
Little wonder then that British opposition Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, argued during the UK debate that they should "learn the lessons of Iraq, because people remember the mistakes that were made in Iraq", before Parliament subsequently rejected the non-binding resolution to intervene militarily in Syria. For now.
Syria, for the moment, isn't Iraq. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said the President "does not envision a situation in Syria that involves boots on the ground."
Still, Congress should convene and do the same thing that Parliament did: debate and vote on any military intervention, before it is launched, as per the rule of law and the clear design of the U.S. Constitution.
If they are in no rush to come back from their Labor Day vacations (they're scheduled to return as of Sep. 6), and the President is not urging them to come back, then apparently the "humanitarian crisis" that Cameron is arguing, and the "national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces," that Obama would need to make a case for, if he wanted to launch military action, legally, under the War Powers Act of 1973, without first receiving authorization from Congress, then whatever the hell is going on in Syria must not be all that much of a "crisis" or "imminent threat" or "national emergency" for the U.S. at all.