Some 140 members of Congress
a letter circulated by Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia telling President Obama that he must seek authorization for any intervention in Syria. While debate and a vote are a good thing, the problem with the letter is that many of the 119 Republicans who signed it would never do so if the presidency was in GOP hands and have only done so because they will do anything to needle Barack Obama.
But Thursday, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California and 53 other Democrats sent their own letter to Obama regarding intervention in Syria. The letter states in part:
We join you and the international community in expressing unequivocal condemnation over the news that chemical weapons were reportedly used by the government of Syria.
While we understand that as Commander in Chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests (such as its embassies) have not been attacked or threatened with an attack. As such, we strongly urge you to seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis.
While the ongoing human rights violations and continued loss of life are horrific, they should not draw us into an unwise war—especially without adhering to our own constitutional requirements. We strongly support the work of the United Nations Security Council to build international consensus condemning the alleged use of chemical weapons and preparing appropriate response; we should also allow the U.N. inspectors the space and time necessary to do their jobs, which are so crucial to ensuring accountability.
As elected officials, we have a duty to represent the will and priorities of our constituents consistent with the Constitution we all swore to uphold and defend. Before weighing the use of military force, Congress must fully debate and consider the facts and every alternative, as well as determine how best to end the violence and protect civilians. We stand ready to work with you.
In a press release, Lee said
We must learn the lessons of the past. Lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others. We must recognize that what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria; the implications for the region are dire.
This letter is calling for a specific action: debate. Congress has a vital role in this process and constitutional power that must be respected. The American people are demanding this debate before we commit our military, our money, or our forces to Syria.
The United States is not alone, of course, in ignoring international law and "norms." Many presidents have chosen to ignore or circumvent Congress when it comes to military interventions. Now—right now—with Thursday's British parliamentary debate as an example, would be a good time for President Obama to reverse America's long-standing approach to foreign policy that 60 years ago had us toppling elected governments and 10 years ago had us invading a nation based on fabrications and fantasies.
Obviously, the use of chemical weapons—whoever is using them—ought not to be ignored. But action addressing their use must be measured and productive. And they must conform with international law, including the charter of the United Nations that the United States was so instrumental in shaping but has so often chosen to go around since that document was approved.
The president should listen to Rep. Lee and the other Democrats who seek a public debate of what to do about the Syrian situation.
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