It’s a lesson that my father taught me, whether it comes to running a government or a business or simply deciding where the family should go for lunch: it doesn’t just matter what happens, it matters how it happens; when the proper processes aren’t followed, things get out of whack.
I think most politicians genuinely believe they are doing the right things, but power is a dangerous elixir. That’s why most government leaders from local borough councilors to United States presidents try to consolidate power. Just trust us, they tend to say - citizens and other agencies don’t need to know what we’re doing. But don’t worry, it’s for your own good; if the results are satisfactory, you shouldn’t complain. Before you know it, power has been consolidated, and the general population has no recourse to have their concerns addressed.
That’s why I applaud President Barack Obama’s recent decision to ask for congressional approval before launching missile strikes into Syria in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (although Obama’s statement that he would strike Syria even if Congress disapproved was less welcome). There are arguments to be made for and against the move, and now the emerging possibility of a diplomatic solution - but, either way, Congress should ultimately make the decision for any military strike to take place.
The United States Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war - that is, to oppose another sovereign nation with force. Everyone knows the United States has fought many wars over the last few decades, yet we have not “declared war” since World War II, a symptom of a steady erosion of Congress’s rightful role in foreign policy, brought about by power consolidation from presidents of both parties.
Congress should not shirk its responsibility to decide policy for non-emergency military conflict simply by not using the phrase “declaring war.” Yet when Obama announced that he would seek Congressional approval for the strike on Syria, some people in Congress itself curiously resisted the idea. Representative Peter King (R-NY), for instance, actually criticized Obama for seeking congressional approval. Referencing Obama’s comment that the use of chemical weapons would be a redline requiring U.S. military action, he said, “the president doesn't need 535 Members of Congress to enforce his own redline.”
Yes, he does, Mr. King - that’s why the 535 of you are there. The presidency is not a policy-making dictatorship; the decision to set policy, both domestic and foreign, lies primarily with the legislature, the branch of government that is closest to the people.
The decision on whether or not to launch a missile strike against Syria is an important one with weighty consequences. But Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for the strike may have a greater, more positive legacy of restoring Congress’s rightful place in American foreign policy.