So, we have bombed Syria.
I am troubled about this—I would like to think I will always be troubled by US military action of any kind. It would be awful to be untroubled by one’s country bombing or shooting or even blockading another country. Even when it’s the best possible choice under dreadful circumstances, even when I support that military action, I would hope to be troubled by it.
If I felt this would seriously deter the Syrian "government" from committing further war crimes—or even if it would seriously deter other villains from committing them—I might support it. I am unconvinced. The history doesn’t suggest to me that this sort of thing has worked well in the past. I also think that the whole notion of sending a message via military action (or for that matter economic sanctions) is vastly overrated. Bashar al-Assad is not an illiterate idiot; he responds to his own incentives and those incentives will mostly be domestic. And as for the residents of what we mockingly refer to as the nation of Syria, well, the message that they will get from being bombed by the US is that the US and the West hate them and want them dead. This has largely been the case in other places we have bombed, hasn’t it?
And yet I can’t think of an action the US could take right now that would be more likely to deter future war crimes. And that includes doing nothing, obviously. It’s a terrible situation, and while I don’t really support the bombing, I don’t know that I support not bombing, either.
All that aside, there is a longer-term problem with the Congress abdicating its authority for initiating military adventures of this kind (or indeed any kind). Both parties (or most of them) have tacitly agreed that this sort of thing should be entirely at Presidential discretion. Obama attempted (probably foolishly) to force them to take a share of the responsibility, and they ducked it. There is a bit of obviously-partisan mouth-noise about it when a President from the Other Party goes off, but it isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
And, as far as I can tell, the populace is just fine with that. There is no push from voters or party actors to put that power back in the legislature (by punishing or rewarding legislators or Presidents) so the legislators are responding to a democratic incentive just as the system says they should. If we, as a nation, want the President to have nearly-unlimited war powers, then our representative government is correctly following that desire. I’ve been seeing a lot of fuss about this being unconstitutional, and yes, the Constitution clearly is set up for the legislature to have a much more active role, but it’s a great Constitution in large part because it responds to how the people want to govern themselves.
The problem, from my point of view, is not that it’s unconstitutional for our nation to have put all that power into the hands of the President. The problem is that it’s terrible. We should have a real discussion, in the public eye, about the possible courses of action, and that discussion should involve our elected representatives, who should be taking part in the discussion under the fear of losing re-election (or further ambition) if their choices turn bad. Strike that—we should have been having those discussions for years, now. There should be electoral consequences (and other Party-based consequences involving leadership, fund-raising, etc) to foolishly engaging in military adventures or to neglecting our real security interests. The actual legislators, of course, don’t want to suffer those consequences, but their (successful) strategy has been to avoid them not by avoiding the adventures but by ducking involvement in those discussions. That’s a bad thing for our nation, and what with our still being the superpower, it’s a bad thing for the whole world.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,