War powers

While the civilized world debates, as it should, what to do about Syria, an additional debate is taking place in the United States: Who should decide?

Put another way, who is going to own this effort? Whatever it is, the potential for failure is enormous.

For many years, Americans and their allies have gone to war on foreign soil because they believed might was the best way, or perhaps the only effective way, to enforce right. No one in this country believes that what is happening in Syria is right – it is hard to believe that anyone, anywhere, does – but wrong actions can be taken in response, with terrible consequences. Among those proven consequences is the failure to bring peace and progress to nations such as Syria. Good intentions don’t render a conflict winnable.

For nearly the same number of years, Americans have been pointing fingers in various directions as they have assigned blame for varying degrees of failure. If only the president had let Congress weigh in. If only the politicians had listened to the people. If only the rest of the world did not expect the United States to shoulder the burden. “We would have made better choices,” they will say, and perhaps they would have, but this Congress has not accomplished much except to name a few post offices.

This time, facing significant domestic pressure and perceiving the lack of an international coalition, the president has decided to defer to Congress (which is still on recess, a term not irrelevant to schoolyard squabbles). A lot of elected officials are about to realize that complaining about someone else’s decision is much easier than taking responsibility for making one. “We do not have enough intelligence,” they will say, and eventually they will all get around to complaining that the solid intelligence they do have offers few good options. Now is a good time to listen to the military analysts who are talking about possibilities, not philosophies.

Congressional representatives are accountable to their constituents, who have far less data on which to base their preferences. “We do not want to be perceived as weak,” some will say, and some of their representatives will agree. “We cannot do it all,” others will say, and they will have supporters also. Meanwhile, other voices, including lobbyists for defense contractors, will be whispering in congressional ears. War is big business. Foreign diplomats will be speaking as well, cautiously weighing the costs of participating in a U.S. action vs. the benefits of sitting back and watching. Most will opt to watch.

At the end of the day, or after many days, the hawks will vote for war and the doves will vote for continued diplomacy, neither of which are likely to produce peace.

What would make this discussion different? What new could be learned? Will Congress now begin to analyze this nation’s role as the world’s enforcer? Is that role appropriate? Do the advantages still hold true? Are the goals achievable? How, really, should the United States fit into the puzzle that is global politics?

Is there anywhere Americans should not be called to fight and kill and die? Who, really, has the right to send them? Those philosophical questions deserve serious consideration.

The long-term discussion cannot be about Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria or the next place where war breaks out. It must be about the United States of America and the values for which it stands. That may very well require reconfiguring how such decisions are made, to move beyond power grabs, plausible deniability and patriotic posturing.

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