On Tuesday, Sept. 17, we will commemorate the 226th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
The Founding Fathers formulated a system of separation of powers, checks and balances that vested one elected branch, Congress, with the power to declare and make appropriations for war, and they made the other top elected national official, the president, commander-in-chief.
In 1793-1794, two important founders Alexander Hamilton, as Pacificus, and James Madison, as Helvidius, engaged in a debate on whether the president could declare neutrality in the conflict between England and France or whether he needed congressional approval.
While Hamilton stressed the president’s solitary role as commander-in-chief, Madison emphasized the importance of congressional direction and approval. Clearly, the nation is strongest when the two coincide.
The dispute continues. Does President Barack Obama have constitutional authority to attack Syria on his own? Must he seek congressional approval? Should he do so?
In 1787, America was not a major world player. Britain largely ruled the seas, and we had little physical power outside our own hemisphere.
In 2013, America is the world’s undisputed military power, a leading economic engine, and about a close to a world policeman as the world has.
Obama came into office by questioning his predecessor’s reputation as a lone cowboy and almost immediately received a Nobel Peace Prize for his rhetoric. Obama proclaimed a new day of hope as he drew down U.S. forces in Iraq, sought coalitions, and refocused attention on human rights, which came to include the right not to be gassed to death by one’s ruler.
And then, unless our eyes and our inspectors deceive, his words failed to deter such lethal action. The Syrian dictator called the president’s bluff.
The president and foreign leaders (one of which has been repudiated by his own parliament) expressed outrage. The National Security Council met. The news media gathered. The president took a walk.
Then, as Americans practically smelled the fumes of rockets, he announced that he would ask Congress to authorize military action.
The Syrian leader and his Iranian allies chuckled; the American people furrowed their collective brows.
Does the president want approval, or is he looking for a scapegoat or a way out? If Congress authorizes force, does Obama intend to replace President Bashar Hafez al-Assad or simply slap him on the wrist? If Assad were to fall, would his successor be any less dangerous?
Americans are tired and the nation is in debt. We have participated in two world wars, a cold war, and a war on terrorism. The world remains a dangerous place, and we face another wrenching choice. Will our representatives authorize military action or step back from Obama’s red line? Will they base their decision on world and national interests or on party identification and political advantage?
The nation’s credibility and wisdom are at stake. Now is the time for We the People to let our representatives know what we think.
John Vile, dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, is a well-known constitutional scholar who has been published in a variety of publications on issues regarding American politics and the U.S. Constitution. He can be reached at John.Vile@mtsu.edu.