Attack Syria? Invade Iran? By What Constitution?
Friday 21 October 2005
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 19, Condoleezza Rice was asked whether the Bush administration was planning military action against Syria. She answered, "I don't think the President ever takes any of his options off the table concerning anything to do with military force."
Last time we read the US Constitution, the grave decision to use military force against another country was a matter for Congress to decide - not an "option" for a President.
And last time we read the UN Charter, it provided that "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."
We've been here before. President Bush used trumped-up fears (like mushroom clouds over American cities) and frauds (like imaginary "yellowcake" uranium) to fool the American people into attacking Iraq. Now we and the Iraqi people are paying the price.
With the American military bogged down in what Lt. Gen. William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan, calls "the greatest strategic disaster in United States history," and with a majority of the American people saying the US made the wrong decision in using military force against Iraq, it may be hard to believe that the Bush administration is really contemplating further adventures.
But regimes facing military embarrassment are notorious for expanding the theater of war - witness Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. And the same delusions that got us into Iraq - from imaginary threats of illicit weapons to dreams of welcome from cheering crowds - are being repeated about Iran and Syria.
War with Syria is already dangerously close. A series of clashes between US and Syrian troops have killed Syrians and, according to current and former US officials, raise the prospect that cross-border military operations may become a dangerous new front in the Iraq war. According to press accounts, US forces have crossed the border into Syria, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately. An October 1 meeting of top Bush officials in the White House considered "options," including "special operations" against Syria. Bush administration officials are already laying the groundwork for attacks with the kinds of justifications they used to ensnare the US in Iraq.
The Bush administration seems to believe that the President has the power to make war on anybody it chooses without even having to consult with Congress. Senator Chafee observed to Secretary Rice, "Under the Iraq war resolution, we restricted any military action to Iraq." Then he asked, "So would you agree that if anything were to occur on Syrian or Iranian soil, you would have to return to Congress to get that authorization?" Rice's reply?
"Senator, I don't want to try and circumscribe presidential war powers. And I think you'll understand fully that the President retains those powers in the war on terrorism and in the war on Iraq."
The provisions of the Constitution that limit the power of the President to make war are wisely designed to protect the people of our country from just the kind of dubious war that the Bush administration conducted against Iraq - and that the great majority of Americans now believe was a mistake. Similarly the restrictions on aggressive war in the UN Charter protect not only countries that might be attacked, but also the people of countries whose leaders may be tempted to conduct such attacks. Nothing could do more for American's national security today than a reinvigoration of these constraints on military adventurism.
While we are debating how to extricate ourselves from our quagmire in Iraq, the Congress and the American people need to make one thing perfectly clear: Attack on Iran, Syria, or any other country without the explicit endorsement of the US Congress and the UN is not an "option" for the President.
As the old saying goes, "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!" Congress and the American people allowed President Bush to fool us into war with Iraq. Shame on us if we allow him to do it again in Syria, Iran, or anywhere else!
Legal scholar Brendan Smith and historian Jeremy Brecher are the editors, with Jill Cutler, of In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond.
[Sources: Anne Gearan, "Rice: US May Still Be in Iraq in 10 Years," Associated Press, October 19, 2005. / Evan Lehman, "Retired general: Iraq invasion was 'strategic disaster,'" Lowell Sun, September 30, 2005 / Princeton Survey Research Associates/Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, interviews conducted October 6-10, 2005. / James Risen and David E. Sanger, "GI's and Syrians in Tense Clashes on Iraqi Border," New York Times, October 15, 2005. / CQ Transcriptions, October 19, 2005.]