President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are agreed on one thing: They both want to get the United States more actively engaged in the fighting in Syria.
Obama announced last month that he hopes to ship arms to the Syrian opposition forces that are fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Boehner said last week that the president’s Syrian gambit “is in our nation’s best interest.”
Boehner’s endorsement of the move came as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., announced, “After much discussion and review, we got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration’s plans and intentions are in Syria consistent with committee reservations.”
But, make no mistake, an “in our nation’s best interest” quote from Boehner and an Intelligence Committee “consensus” ought not be read as congressional approval for a project that threatens to involve the United States in another war in another Middle Eastern country.
That’s a point made by a key Intelligence Committee member, California Democrat Adam Schiff, who announced last week, “I do not share that consensus, however, and wish to make my dissent clear. In my view, the modest chance for success of these plans does not warrant the risk of becoming entangled in yet another civil war.”
Schiff’s concerns are well-founded. And he is not alone. Polling shows that only 11 percent of Americans favor U.S. moves to aid the rebels. And there are many in Congress — Republicans and Democrats, Obama critics and frequent Obama allies — who express profound reservations about the course chosen by the administration.
That ought to create a checking-and-balancing moment. After all, the Constitution clearly affords Congress the power to declare wars — and to define the scope and character of military interventions.
But, as Vermont Congressman Peter Welch asked this week, “Does Congress play a role?”
The answer, because of manipulations of the process by Boehner and his allies, is basically “no.”
Welch, a Democrat who recently visited the Syrian border region, has emerged as an outspoken critic of moves to involve the United States in the conflict. He warns that “this is a significant military action. We are taking sides in a civil war.” It is this concern that led Welch and a number of Republican representatives to try to force Congress to engage in a serious debate about whether to get entangled in the Syria fight. Unfortunately, Boehner has manipulated the rules to aid Obama’s quest.
As part of last week's debate over the 2014 Pentagon spending bill, Welch and a bipartisan coalition he helped to assemble had hoped to get a vote on an amendment that would have barred the use of Department of Defense money to arm the rebels — or to otherwise pull the United States into the Syrian conflict.
But House leaders blocked consideration of the proposal. Boehner’s allies on the Rules Committee wanted to allow debate on only four narrowly drawn amendments to the broader spending bill. In addition to amendments that discuss limiting National Security Agency spying and aid to Egypt, a watered-down amendment on Syria was considered.
Sponsored by Republican Congressman Trey Radel, of Florida, the Syria amendment passed on a voice vote July 24. But it only prohibits the use of Pentagon funds for Syrian projects that are defined as “inconsistent” with the War Powers Resolution. The wording of Radel’s amendment makes it essentially symbolic, as it does little more than restate existing law.
It is important to remind the White House of the rules. Indeed, as Robert Naiman, the policy director for the group Just Foreign Policy, notes, “the Radel amendment can help achieve two things: It can be cited as congressional opposition to deeper U.S. military involvement, and it specifically can be used to argue against continuation of the recent deployment of U.S. troops to Jordan, widely perceived as related to the threat of U.S. military intervention in Syria.”
But the Radel amendment does not achieve the sort of meaningful congressional action that the Founders imagined as a necessary tool to check and balance military adventurism. It’s a facade of oversight rather than the real thing. Just as when Russian officials were accused of erecting fake “Potemkin villages” to fool foreign ambassadors into thinking impoverished regions were thriving, Boehner and his team are erecting Potemkin checks and balances.
“The Republican leadership ducked a real important debate when it comes to Syria,” complained Congressman James McGovern, D-Mass.
McGovern is right about that. And he is right to worry about what Boehner’s failure might mean.
“I hope that … a few years down the road we don’t look back,” said McGovern, “and express regret that somehow we got sucked into this war without a real debate.”
John Nichols is the associated editor of The Capital Times. He is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of "Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America" (The Nation). Author Thomas Frank says: “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’ and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.” email@example.com @NicholsUprising