The world began in 1945. Or so many American pundits would have you believe. The predisposition is actually a bit more complicated than that: American history, pundit-style, often starts with the Revolution and Founding Fathers, jumps briefly to the Civil War (Gettysburg!), and then segues directly to Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and then the Cold War. That tendency has been on display in the Syria debate. James Fallows points to a Walter Shapiro article on President Obama’s decision to go to Congress for approval over Syria, which starts Presidential “evisceration” of Congress’ war-making abilities with Harry Truman:
For more than six decades, the war-making powers of Congress have been eviscerated by presidents of both parties. Which brings us back to Truman, who in 1950 balked at asking a Congress weary after World War II for approval to militarily respond to the Communist attack on South Korea. Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, claimed in his memoirs that a congressional debate over the Korean War “would hardly be calculated to support the shaken morale of the troops or the unity that, for the moment, prevailed at home.”
On that view, which is close to the past views of the Office of Legal Counsel, the planned use of military force in Syria is a constitutional stretch that will push presidential war unilateralism beyond where it has gone before
Shapiro also cites a Garrett Epps article that makes much the same argument.
These historical arguments ignore the way in which American Presidents have used military force throughout the history of the Republic. American Presidents – and this is especially true in the 1865-1939 period – have frequently sent in American forces without recourse to Congress and without much in the way of justification. All of Latin America is probably laughing hollowly at the idea that American Presidents have referred to Congress before acting militarily south of the border. US interventions in Latin America are too numerous to catalog here, but a large number of them happened without Congressional approval and without much of a fig leaf of defensible reasoning (“A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama!” being at least the most entertaining).
Teddy Roosevelt put voice to the conception that animated this in the 1904 State of the Union. He asserted the right of the United States to act as an “international police power” in the Western Hemisphere if other nations did not behave themselves:
Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power…It is a mere truism to say that every nation, whether in America or anywhere else, which desires to maintain its freedom, its independence, must ultimately realize that the right of such independence can not be separated from the responsibility of making good use of it.
Roosevelt’s assertion – known as the Roosevelt Corollary To the Monroe Doctrine* – is an enormous one. If a nation is guilty of “chronic wrongdoing” then the US may intervene. Note that this doesn’t have to be chronic wrongdoing against the US; it could be against anyone. TR also argues that a nation’s independence – the entirety of its existence – is dependent on it “making good use of it” and Roosevelt arrogates to the US the power to decide what that “good use” means.
Clearly, the US has for a long time believed itself justified in intervening for all sorts of reasons, especially when on a relatively small scale. And for such small-scale conflicts, Presidents have largely avoided going to Congress, preferring instead to wage them on their own. When those interventions haven’t defended American interests as then understood, the Presidents have simply redefined American interests. Congressional declarations of war have been reserved for the big, official wars. The two great exceptions of recent years have been Korea and Vietnam, but Presidents have largely returned to getting Congressional assent for military actions of a certain scale: Bush Senior in 1990, and Bush Junior in 2001 and 2003.
Obama asserting his authority to attack Syria is thus mostly consistent with American history. In Obama’s “red line”, Teddy Roosevelt would likely recognize a “flagrant case of…wrongdoing.” In this context, Obama’s turning to Congress to ask for a vote is actually a radical shift from the way most past Presidents have behaved. It doesn’t make intervening (or not intervening, for that matter) in Syria the right thing to do, but it would certainly help the discussion if we moved past the historical fulminating.
*Rather than each President having their own “Doctrine,” which gets terribly boring, we should imitate this in a variety of ways. How about the Bush Complement? The Obama Axiom? The Clinton Postulate? Also, they sound like espionage novels, always a positive.