Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Syria AUMF: Be Careful What You Vote For

Whatever his motivations, it’s good that President Barack Obama has departed from past practicelet the Tomahawks fly and Congress be damnedand gone to the people’s representatives so they can stand and be counted. 

But, as I note in today’s Washington Examinerthat vote isn’t without danger. The draft authorization for the use of military force the administration circulated Saturday is strikingly broad. And if we know anything from the history of past AUMFs, it’s that presidents will push the authority they’re given as far as language will allow—and possibly further. 

In his Rose Garden press conference Saturday, Obama said “we would not put boots on the ground.” The action he’s contemplating would be “limited in duration and scope.” Just a “shot across the bow”—a light dusting of cruise missiles.  

The draft AUMF says no such thing:

  • It authorizes the president to use U.S. “armed forces,” not just air power. 
  • He can do that “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate,” so long as it’s “in connection” with use of unconventional weapons in Syria—and again, he determines what connection exists.
  • It doesn’t limit him to striking Syrian government forces, and it doesn’t limit him to Syria. It’s loose enough, as former Bush Office of Legal Council head Jack Goldsmith points out, to allow the president to wage war against Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon, so long as “he determines” there’s some connection to WMD in Syria.
  • And it doesn’t contain a “sunset clause” time-limiting the authority granted—which means that authority will be available for future presidents as well. 

As a reminder, here’s LBJ announcing his decision to go to Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, piously intoning that “we Americans know, though others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.”


On Syria, Attention Shifts to Congress

President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek authorization from Congress before ordering attacks on Syria has elicited speculation about what motivated this apparent change of heart. After all, the president didn’t seek Congress’s approval before ordering attacks against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya in March 2011. Back then, members of the administration claimederroneously, as Louis Fisher points out here (.pdf)that they had all the authority they needed from UN Security Council resolution 1973It was a very thin reed on which to build a case for war, but administration officials teamed up with hawks on both the left and right to turn aside the objections of dovish Democrats and “Kucinich Republicans,” as the Wall Street Journal’s editors called them.

Obama couldn’t shelter behind the UN this time around, and Congressional opposition arose much faster and stronger than I anticipated as recently as last week. Even some Democrats, most notably Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine, voiced concern about the president’s apparent intention to circumvent the people’s elected representatives. The British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for air strikes was a further blow, both in that it denied the United States a credible ally (only France remains), and highlighted the uncomfortable fact that most democracies have a debate before going to war. 

So now the attention turns to Congress, with many members still on recess, but a number returning early to Capitol Hill for briefings and hearings. Those handicapping the sentiment in Congress claim that the president lacks the votes today to secure a victory, but he has a full week to change minds and twist arms. Some of the 190+ members who signed at least one of two letters, or issued a statement, calling on the president to go to Congress before launching an attack will be satisfied to have been included in the process. Sen. Kaine expressed this sentiment today. Party leaders may not whip the vote, but Obama will be assisted by the pro-intervention chorus, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and by the signatories to this letter issued last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative. The pro-Obama team will include an unlikely ally: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who declared last night on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that a vote against Obama would be effectively a vote for Assad. There will be more of this in the week ahead.

It will be hard for the opponents of intervention in Syria to prevail given that many Democrats can be expected to side with the president, and a number of Republicans still prefer the interventionists’ talking points, even if they know they are unpopular back home. 

President Must Go to Congress Before Bombing Syria

With friends and allies backing away from war with Syria, President Obama has been reduced to threatening unilateral military action—just enough so the administration won’t be “mocked,” said one unnamed official. But that’s also enough to violate the Constitution’s requirement for a congressional declaration of war.

The nation’s Founders feared just such a moment. John Jay pointed to the dubious motives that caused kings “to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.” So the Framers gave most military powers to Congress. Under Article 1, sec. 8 (11), “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.”

Future president James Madison explained the “fundamental doctrine of the Constitution that the power to declare war is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature.” The Founders did recognize that the president might have to respond to attack; however, this was a very limited grant of authority. George Mason favored “clogging rather than facilitating war.” James Wilson observed: “It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is in the legislature at large.” Thomas Jefferson approved the “effectual check to the dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose.”

No surprise, many presidents have pushed against the Constitution’s restrictions, unilaterally employing the military for different operations. However, most such deployments have been limited and temporary and many had colorable legislative authority. 

Even strong presidents acknowledged the limits on their power. George Washington explained,“The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.” Similarly, said Dwight Eisenhower, “I am not going to order any troops into anything that can be interpreted as war, until Congress directs it.”

Barack Obama once agreed with his predecessors. In December 2007 candidate Obama acknowledged, “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 to the nation.”

War in Syria: Madness on the Potomac

The United States faces no serious military threats today, yet is constantly at war. Syria is the latest target.

Traditionally Washington did not look for wars to fight. The government’s duty was to protect the American people from conflict.

Measured on this scale there is no cause for intervening in the Syrian imbroglio. The regime has little capacity to harm the U.S. or resist the overwhelming retaliation that would occur in response to any attack. Syria’s chemical weapons have little more utility than high explosives and nothing close to the killing capacity of America’s many nuclear weapons.

The possibility of radical Islamist insurgents gaining control over territory is more worrisome, but is most likely in the event of U.S. intervention against the Assad government. The conflict is destabilizing, but friendly states should deal with the consequences.

Of course, the Syrian civil war is a tragedy, like many others throughout history. Civil wars may be the worst, often with few genuine good guys.

The rebels are united only by their opposition to Assad. The strongest factions appear least interested in a liberal, democratic future for Syria and most interested in using Syria to attack Americans.

The Downside of Alliances: Being Dragged into Other People’s Conflicts

British territorial disputes with Argentina and Spain are heating up, leading to demands that Washington support its foremost ally. However, George Washington was correct when he warned the U.S. against permanent foreign entanglements.

In 1982, the Argentine military junta failed in its attempt to seize the Falkland Islands from Great Britain. Three years ago, the prospect of energy development triggered renewed claims from Buenos Aires and a campaign of commercial harassment. 

Tensions between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar, a peninsula, also have flared. Last year, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy urged talks over the island’s sovereignty. In July, the Gibraltar authorities blocked access by Spanish fishermen to surrounding waters, leading Spain to initiate lengthy border inspections and threaten other retaliatory measures.

London’s control of the two territories may not be logical or fair, but that’s international relations. History can’t be easily “fixed,” at least at reasonable cost to everyone involved.

So far Washington has avoided taking sides in either dispute. The Obama administration has ignored the Gibraltar contretemps while opining that the Falklands are “a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between Argentina and the United Kingdom,” in the words of State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

However, some analysts have criticized such “neutrality” as being the equivalent of surrender, and demanded that Washington ostentatiously back the U.K.

Why should Washington, with a full international plate, meddle in other nations’ peripheral but emotional controversies?

Troubled Currencies Project Update: Syria, Iran, and Egypt

Syria Since August 26,  when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began laying the groundwork for military intervention in Syria, the Syrian pound (SYP) has taken a beating on the black market. Indeed, the SYP has lost 24.07 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar (USD) in the two days since Kerry’s announcement. Currently, the exchange rate sits at 270 SYP/USD, yielding an implied annual inflation rate of 291.88 percent. In countries with troubled currencies, there is no better measure of economic expectations than the black-market exchange rate. The recent deterioration in the SYP/USD exchange rate clearly indicates that Syrians are anticipating Western military intervention in the near term. 

IranThe initial weeks of the Rouhani presidency have seen renewed economic confidence, as reflected by the Iranian rial’s (IRR) black-market exchange rate. The new central bank governor, Valiollah Seif, has stated that his primary concerns are to rein in inflation and boost economic stability. Over the past few weeks, the rial has strengthened on the black-market, and inflation has moderated somewhat. That said, recent international saber-rattling over Syria clearly has spooked the Iranian public. In the two days since Secretary Kerry first made his case for intervention in Syria, the value of the Iranian rial has dropped 4.74 percent on the black market, to 32,700 IRR/USD. This yields an implied annual inflation rate of 52.10 percent, up from 44.89 percent, prior to Kerry’s announcement.

EgyptSince the fall of the Morsi government, public confidence and support for the military regime has boosted the value of the Egyptian pound (EGP). Prior to the military takeover, the black-market exchange rate sat at 7.6 EGP/USD. Since Morsi’s ouster, the pound has appreciated by 7.34 percent, to 7.08 EGP/USD. This yields a current implied annual inflation rate of 18.62 percent, down from 27.85 percent in the final days of the Morsi government. In recent weeks, the Central Bank has been auctioning off up to $40 million in foreign exchange, three times per week. This rather modest sum has adequately met the demand for foreign exchange at rates close to the official exchange rate of 6.99 EGP/USD.


For more information on troubled currencies in these countries and others, see The Troubled Currencies Project.

Should Ill-Fated Activists Expect Rescue from Washington?

Kenneth Bae is a 44-year-old Christian missionary who was arrested last November while leading a tour of North Korea’s Rason special economic zone. He wanted to spread the Gospel, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea views religion as a particularly serious threat.

Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. His letters home, said his sister, Terri Chung, “contained the same message—Kenneth’s health is failing, and he asked us to seek help from our government to bring him home.”  He urged Washington to send an envoy for him.

Bae’s mother was even more insistent:  “I don’t see any action.  I want to ask them, send an envoy or do something.  As a mother, I am really getting angry, really getting angry.  What do they do?”

It’s a tragic situation.  But it isn’t the U.S. government’s responsibility to win the release American citizens who knowingly violate the laws of other nations. I say that even though I have traveled multiple times with ethnic Karen guerrillas in eastern Burma. I didn’t expect a rescue from Washington if something went wrong. After all, I’d chosen to enter a war zone.

The U.S. government has called for Bae’s humanitarian release. The DPRK almost certainly wants to use him to win one concession or another. In the past, that has meant a high-level visit to Pyongyang:  Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both have played that role.  But the administration is sending an envoy and Pyongyang might want more this time.