Will Congress Block Military Aid to the Syrian Rebels?

Other news has pushed Syria out of the headlines in the past two weeks, but some members of Congress have spent the time preparing for a showdown with the Obama administration over its decision to arm rebels in Syria. 

Late last month, a bipartisan group led by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) put forward legislation (H.R. 2494) that would block military aid to Syria pending authorization by a joint congressional resolution. The legislation would allow non-lethal assistance to continue to flow, but would require the administration to report every 90 days on what groups are receiving the aid, and the character of the aid being provided. Similar legislation (S. 1201) was introduced in the Senate by two Democrats (Tom Udall, NM; and Chris Murphy, CT) and two Republicans (Rand Paul, KY; and Mike Lee, UT).

Last week, Gibson and bill co-sponsor Peter Welch (D-VT) appeared on C-Span to discuss the legislative initiative. More information can be found here.

The effort seems like a long shot given the steady erosion of the U.S. Congress’s control over the war powers. This regression was reflected most recently by the Obama administration’s decision to wage “kinetic military action” against Libya under a UN Security Council Resolution, and in the face of strong congressional opposition. On the other hand, the American people remain overwhelmingly opposed to deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, and a mere 11 percent support arming the rebels, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In this case, at least, the people’s elected representatives are at least doing their jobs in representing their constituents’ views.  

As to the substance of the legislation, one can sympathize with the premise behind it without agreeing with co-sponsor Michele Bachmann (R-MN) that the Syrian rebels are “enemies” of the United States who could “defeat us and our way of life” (though a few might aspire to such grandiose aims). On policy grounds, limited military intervention in Syria is unlikely to turn the tide in favor of our prefered group (one that is presumably secular, pro-U.S., and capable of governing Syria), which means that arming the rebels is likely to extend the conflict and drag the United States more deeply into another civil war in the region. As Rep. Mike Nolan (D-MN) noted, “This matter, however tragic and sad, will not be resolved by the US’s involvement or intervention and will only invite resentment from both sides, as has been proven time and time again. We must get over the false notion that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”

Another reason why the legislation is attracting bipartisan support has to do with the separation of powers, and a nascent movement within the Congress to reclaim at least some of its constitutional authority. We saw a glimmer of this opposition in the spring of 2011. The floor debate ultimately failed to halt U.S. military intervention in Libya, but at least we had such a debate. We need one with respect to arming the Syrian rebels.

Gibson, the author of legislation that would revise the War Powers Act, appears to be motivated primarily by those aims. A retired U.S. Army Colonel who served four tours in Iraq, Gibson earned a PhD in government from Cornell and later published a book on civil-military relations. He spoke on the subject in late 2011 at a Cato Capitol Hill Briefing.

In introducing the Syrian legislation, Gibson explained:

As I have long-maintained, the decision to engage overseas must be made with the utmost caution and with a full understanding of the dynamics. Most importantly, the American people, through their Congressional Representatives, must be part of this decision process….This bipartisan legislation will ensure we can maintain our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to support the Syrian people without getting drawn into another engagement. Moving forward, it is vital that Congress be a part of this debate and provide authorization prior to any hostile action or escalation of our involvement. 

As I said, this is a long-shot effort given the extent to which power has shifted to the executive branch, and given that many of Gibson’s colleagues (both Republicans and Democrats) seem so willing to ignore their sacred oath to uphold the Constitution. But it is gratifying to see at least some members of Congress taking their responsibilities seriously.