By Juan Williams - 09/09/13 10:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last week called out members of Congress as a bunch of big talkers with no guts when it comes to firing missiles into Syria.
Durbin conceded it is “one of the toughest calls we’ll ever make as members of Congress.” His comments are a sad reminder of the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil history of Congress repeatedly avoiding responsibility when it comes to making tough calls on starting military action.
“Most of the time,” Durbin said, “Congress … insists on being respected and being given this authority. [But then members start] shaking when [ power] is given because it calls on us to be part of historic, life-and-death decisions.”
Yes, the Constitution explicitly gives Congress — and only Congress, not the White House — the power to declare war. But for most of our nation’s history, Congress has a tendency to run the other way. That sheepish streak has been on view in the last week, even among normally hawkish Republicans.
Congress has declared war only five times. According to a new book those five are: The War of 1812; the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; World War I and World War II. The book — The Road to War, by veteran newsman Marvin Kalb — gives particular attention to the latter half of the 20th century when members of Congress happily slipped into the political pose of critics-in-chief while leaving tough military calls to the commander-in-chief.
President Truman, for example, had neither a congressional declaration of war nor authorization for military intervention in the Korean War, according to Kalb’s book. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon also had no deal with Congress on war in Vietnam. President Johnson did get a winning vote for his “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” which was written by the administration and basically rubber-stamped by a Congress eager to avoid having fingerprints on the larger long and bloody war.
President Reagan did not bother with Congress when he invaded Grenada in 1983. Congress groused but, again, did nothing about it. President Clinton launched airstrikes in Kosovo after the Senate gave him authorization. But when the House later considered authorizing action that had already taken place they could only get a tie-vote, meaning Congress never authorized a military response into Kosovo in 1999.
President George H.W. Bush did get authorization from Congress, in a very close vote, for the Gulf War. But there was never a full declaration of war. And President George W. Bush, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, similarly got Congressional authorization to invade Iraq after a lobbying campaign based on bad intelligence about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Again, there was no declaration of war.
President Obama continued this pattern in 2011 when he did not even ask for authorization or a resolution before taking action in Libya. But he did send notice of his decision. That was a cover for basically ignoring Congress.
Now Obama is making the case for Congress to be a full partner in his decision to send cruise missiles into Syria. On the left and the right, there was pressure for the president to go to Congress before taking military action. The president stunned the political world when he agreed.
So far, Obama has won the outright support of most of the congressional leadership, including top voices in the GOP such as Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and House Republican Leader Eric Cantor (Va.).
But last week most of the current Congress appeared content to hide behind opinion polls showing most Americans, war-weary after long, costly wars of questionable result in Iraq and Afghanistan, opposed to intervening in Syria.
The latest Pew poll shows only 29 percent of Americans in support of airstrikes on Syria and 48 percent opposed. Some right-wing hawks admit their opposition is based on distrust of Obama as a liberal Democrat in the White House who ran with a promise to get the United States out of war.
Amazingly, some congressional critics leaning against the president say they will agree only to a larger commitment, including the use of U.S. forces on the ground, to oust Assad.
That is another slippery dodge from the serious business of having Congress vote yes or no to authorizing a military response, which is itself a diluted version of a proper declaration of war. Critics know Congress does not have the votes to approve putting soldiers on the front line inside Syria.
It is hard to make the case for getting involved in Syria’s civil war. Assad is a war criminal. But the rebels include Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda.
Here is my case: There is no escape, on Capitol Hill or anywhere else, from the vital U.S. interest in stopping the use of chemical weapons and sending a message to Syria’s enabler, Iran, about the use of nuclear weaponry. This is the calculus Congress should use when they cast this historic vote.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.