President Barack Obama speaking from the White House during a televised speech on September 10, 2013
The civil war in Syria took a dramatic turn when evidence surfaced that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against civilians. President Barack Obama, who had previously warned against any use of chemical weapons, responded by planning to order military strikes against Syrian targets. Some members of Congress demanded that the president seek approval from the legislative branch before initiating any US involvement in the Syrian conflict. Obama, who insisted that he had the authority to order military action, then decided to put the issue before Congress. Debate over “war powers” was front and center until a proposal by Russia opened up a possible diplomatic solution. Although the discussion died down, it is certain to resume if the Syrian government fails to cooperate with the international community.
The debate over war powers often centers around the War Powers Resolution of 1973. This resolution spells out the conditions under which a president must seek authorization from Congress to use military force. Passed during the Vietnam War era, the resolution marked an attempt by Congress to take back the constitutional warmaking powers it had ceded to the executive through measures like the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. While the Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to declare war, it vests the executive with command of the armed forces—and hence priority in national security affairs. The crux of the debate concerns when, if ever, a president can engage in warmaking without specific congressional authorization. The resolution spells out conditions, but they have been subject to differing interpretations by the executive and legislative branches, and by different presidents. Obama himself seems to have a different understanding as president than he did when he was a presidential candidate.
The last time the United States actually declared war was in 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In US history since the passage of the War Powers Resolution America’s armed forces have been committed to military action a number of times, including Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq and Kuwait (1991), Somalia (1992), Serbia and Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). Will Syria join that list?
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- How War Powers, Congressional Action Have Intersected over Time
This article reviews the recent history of the use of warmaking powers since passage of the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution.
(Source: Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2013)
- The War Powers Act Is Pretty Unclear about Whether Congress Gets a Vote on Syria
This article surveys the differences in “expert” opinion on the exercise of war powers in regard to Syria.
(Source: U.S. News & World Report, August 30, 2013)
- War Powers Debate Arises Again around Possible Action in Syria
This article discusses how the crisis over Syria has put the issue of war powers back on the agenda in Washington.
(Source: CNN.com, September ??, 2013)
- The Press and the Syria Debate: Neither Neutral Nor Balanced
This analysis of press coverage of the debate over possible US military intervention in Syria points out biases both for and against the use of American force abroad.
(Source: The Atlantic, September 3, 2013)