I watched a bit of the Senate hearings on the resolution on Syria yesterday afternoon, tuning in just in time to see Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) grilling Secretary of State John Kerry on whether or not President Obama would conduct a strike in Syria even if Congress voted against it.
Mr. Paul was at his Tea Party best, carrying on about how the president will violate the Constitution by going to war without the permission of Congress, hinting that Mr. Obama violates the Constitution without breaking a sweat, and visibly annoying Mr. Kerry, who seemed to be more interested in jotting down notes than actually listening to the senator, and when he did respond it was like he was talking to a ten-year-old. (Mr. Paul does bring that out in people.) He assured the gentleman from Kentucky that the Obama administration was not planning on a “classic declaration of war” but a limited capability to teach the Syrian government a lesson. But Sen. Paul kept insisting on getting an assurance from the Secretary that we weren’t going to go to war without Congressional approval.
The maddening thing about the whole discussion is that I and a lot of people agree with Mr. Paul’s view: one foot in the door with “limited action” is still a war, and that over the last sixty years or so we’ve seen presidents of both parties put forces in harm’s way — with or without boots on the ground — without the say-so of Congress, and this does not sound much different.
I just wish that Mr. Paul didn’t sound like such a crackpot when he makes our case for us.
Paul Waldman at The American Prospect sums it up well.
I’m paid to have opinions, and I can’t figure out what my opinion is. On one hand, Bashar Assad is a mass murderer who, it seems plain, would be happy to kill half the population of his country if it would keep him in power. On the other hand, if he was taken out in a strike tomorrow the result would probably be a whole new civil war, this time not between the government and rebels but among competing rebel groups. On one hand, there’s value in enforcing international norms against certain kinds of despicable war crimes; on the other hand, Assad killed 100,000 Syrians quite adequately with guns and bombs before everybody got really mad about the 1,400 he killed with poison gas. On one hand, a round of missile strikes isn’t going to have much beyond a symbolic effect without changing the outcome of the civil war; on the other hand, the last thing we want is to get into another protracted engagement like Iraq.
In short, we’re confronted with nothing but bad options, and anyone who thinks there’s an unambiguously right course of action is a fool.
Josh Marshall has a look at the War Powers Act and how presidents have used and abused their power as Commander in Chief since the day the Constitution was enacted. Sen. Paul and the rest of us can discuss it at length and in terms of history, but the bottom line is that if this or any president wants war, they’ll find a way to get it.