Will President Obama commit U.S. military forces to attack Syria in the coming weeks? The president seemed determined to act last week after getting firm intelligence that the Assad regime had indeed used chemical weapons, killing almost 1,500 people in the process. Then, surprisingly, Obama changed course, deciding instead to seek congressional approval for any action. Still, the possibility must be considered that the president will order an attack without congressional authorization.
Veteran journalist Marvin Kalb, nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, is the author of a recent Brookings book that examines how presidential commitments can lead, sometimes unintentionally, to the use of American military force—and to war. In The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed, Kalb notes that since World War II, “presidents have relied more on commitments, public and private, than they have on declarations of war, even though the U.S. Constitution declares rather unambiguously that Congress has the responsibility to ‘declare war.’”
Although the book focuses on U.S. commitments to South Korea, Vietnam and Israel, Kalb’s insights are directly relevant to the situation in Syria. As he writes:
Words have consequence. Spoken by a president, they can often become American policy, with or without congressional approval. When a president “commits” the United States to a controversial course of action, he may be setting the nation on the road to war or on a road to reconciliation. In matters of national security, his powers have become awesome—his word decisive. Who decides when we go to war? The president decides. As former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told me, it “all depends” on the president. “It’s his call.” Likewise, it is his decision when and whether, and under what conditions, to support a friendly nation.