Using the Syria Debate to Launch War Powers Reform

Whatever else we learn from the current debate over a possible U.S. military strike against Syria, one point seems clear: We don't have good structures and processes in place for dialogue between the President and Congress over war-making. Specifically, we don't have a reliable version of what Professor Stephen M. Griffin has called a "cycle of accountability" in making war because Congress is not so structured as to be an effective co-equal partner in foreign policy and national security deliberations.

Congress ought to centralize more authority in its leadership to deal with the executive branch in military affairs. The President needs credible, experienced consultation partners, who are able - if the occasion merits it - to call upon their colleagues to support the President's national security plans going forward. Congress should also have oversight processes in place that are adequate to test the executive branch's claims with regard to our national security.

Intriguingly, a promising first draft of a blueprint for reform could be a redraft of the War Powers Resolution introduced in 1995 by then-Senator Joseph Biden. Among other things, his so-called "Use of Force Act" would have set forth in far greater detail (and with more deference to the executive than exists in the War Powers Resolution) Congress's understanding of the permissible reach of presidential military authority. It would have also given the President the benefit of a statutory "Congressional Leadership Group" to facilitate interbranch consultation.

A cycle of accountability could be yet further strengthened by creating in Congress a single, principal point of oversight and review for decisions about war. This could be either a Joint Committee or a single committee with jurisdiction in each House.

Unfortunately, nothing in Congress's track record sustains optimism for structural reform. Each of the 535 members of Congress wants policy influence. That reality and the ever-more-decentralized nature of political fund-raising have exert a persistent centrifugal force on Congress that works to resist centralization initiatives.

The kinds of reform needed for war deliberations resemble the kinds of reform that have been repeatedly urged for the system of congressional intelligence oversight. A variety of intelligence and terrorism studies between 1991 and 2001 recommended congressional restructuring; Congress did nothing. The 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress create "a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security." It has not happened.

Remarkably, however, it is possible in the current political moment to imagine a confluence of political forces that could actually unite around a program of war powers reform. President Obama's unprecedented turn to Congress for explicit authority to stage a limited strike operation against Syria has revealed a complex political landscape with regard to war-making.

The Democrats are divided primarily among the "humanitarian interventionists" and "presidentialism skeptics." That is because some liberals believe U.S. military interventions can be effective tools for forestalling international atrocities, while others are wary of the utility of U.S. military interventions and, perhaps more profoundly, the breadth of presidential claims of authority to deploy U.S. military forces unilaterally.

The Republicans are divided between "military hawks" and "neo-isolationists." The former are conservatives persuaded that radical Islamists have taken the place of Communists as a persistent, ubiquitous global enemy and that nearly unfettered presidential military discretion is essential to defeat their cause; the latter, like presidentialism skeptics, doubt the utility of U.S. military interventions and are inclined to resist international deployments because of their fiscal, as well as geopolitical consequences.

A legislative project to reinvigorate the cycle of accountability could potentially unite the neo-isolationists and presidentialism skeptics. It is noteworthy also that the draft Use of Force Act would have gone beyond the War Powers Resolution in legitimating presidential military initiative. It would authorize the President to use force, in conformity with the Act, to forestall imminent acts of terrorism and to protect internationally recognized rights of innocent and free passage in the air and on the seas. Providing explicit Congressional sanction for presidential action aimed at such purposes might win the support of both the humanitarian interventionists and perhaps even some military hawks.

Now is the time for Congress to think about war-making in a context broader than Syria. President Obama has opened up the possibility for seriously rethinking the relationship of our elected branches in war-making in the post-9/11 era. It would be wonderful not to miss this opportunity for reform.