Fallout From Previous War Resolutions Hangs Over Syria Debate

Posted on CQ.com on Sept. 5, 2013 – 2:06 p.m.

By Megan Scully, CQ Roll Call

Looming large over the congressional debate to authorize the use of force in Syria are votes taken more than a decade ago to launch operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As lawmakers sit through classified briefings and public hearings, they are at once skeptical of the administration’s case to strike following the Assad regime’s Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside of Syria and wary that the United States could be dragged into another prolonged war.

After a decade of war, members on both sides of the aisle remain unconvinced that a Syria strike is in the national security interests of the United States. They question the U.S. military objective, the country’s ability to keep the operation a limited one and the affordability of even a small strike.

It seems fitting, then, that two of the Obama administration’s point men on Syria — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry — took those votes to authorize force in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside their Senate colleagues many years ago.

Both men, veterans of the Vietnam War, voted to authorize operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq vote in 2002, in particular, hangs over them as they press the case for a strike in Syria on Capitol Hill.

“Both of us are especially sensitive to never again asking any member of Congress to vote on faulty intelligence,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Some lawmakers who voted against the authorization to use force in Iraq (PL 107-243), including Sen. Barbara Boxer, have stressed that attempting to draw parallels between that war and the proposed strike in Syria is a false comparison.

“In Iraq, the Bush administration prepared to invade and occupy a country with well over 100,000 troops,” Boxer said at Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “In this case, the president’s been clear. No ground invasion, no occupation.”

The California Democrat ultimately voted to support the authorization during the panel’s markup Wednesday. But others, like Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who voted against the Iraq authorization as a House member, are unconvinced by the administration’s case for a quick strike against Assad.

“Many who voted for it [the Iraq war] came to regret that vote,” Udall said during Tuesday’s hearing. “Americans are understandably weary after the fiasco of Iraq and after more than a decade of war, how can our administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited? How can we guarantee that one surgical strike will have any impact other than to tighten the vise grip Assad has on his power?”

During the Senate markup, Udall offered an amendment that would have sharply limited the scope of the operation. The panel soundly defeated Udall’s language and he later voted against the authorization.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., also opposed the Iraq war but has said he supports striking in Syria despite a lack of strong public support for the operation.

“Public opinion was very much in favor of going into Iraq. I voted not to go into Iraq. I thought it was a mistake,” Levin told reporters on Wednesday after a lengthy classified briefing. “The phones were ringing off the hook after President Bush’s speeches about going into Iraq. If I had followed public opinion then, I would have voted to go into Iraq. But in my judgment at that tie, it was a mistake.”

Each senator, Levin added, is ultimately going to have to decide for themselves whether striking in Syria is in America’s security interests.

“It may or may not be popular at the moment, but each of us, I believe, will make an effort to the best of our ability make that judgment,” he said.

After September 11
Even the war in Afghanistan, which received nearly unanimous support on Capitol Hill and across the country in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is playing into the debate on Syria.

Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said on Tuesday he didn’t understand then the wide-ranging effects of the authorization for force (PL 107-40) after those attacks, given that it has been cited by two administrations as permitting drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations in a number of countries.

“I still believe that was the right thing to do,” Durbin said of his vote to authorize the Afghanistan war. “But I didn’t know at the time that I voted for that authorization for the use of military force I was voting for the longest war in the history of the United States and an authority to several presidents to do things that no one could have envisioned at that moment in history.”

During Wednesday’s markup, Durbin, who ultimately supported the resolution, worked to make the language in the authorization as specific as possible to avoid another broad-sweeping declaration of war.

“I think that what we’ve done today is a step in the right direction,” he said. “I hope that it makes it a safer world.”

Earlier Syria Vote
But the Iraq and Afghanistan votes may not be the only ones factoring into lawmakers’ decisions on Syria.

In 2003, both chambers of Congress widely supported the Syria Accountability Act (PL 108-175), which gave the president a choice of sanctions aimed at, among other things, forcing Syria to abandon its support of terrorism and its suspected possession of chemical weapons.

The bill states that Syria’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction threatens the security interests of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States — a statement that administration officials and others in support of a strike have used to buttress their arguments that doing so is in the country’s best interest.

“Not all of us were here 10 years ago when that vote was taken,” Levin said. “But many of us were here and I think that that will also be something that people will look back to as a reminder of how seriously we took it that Syria might even get possession of — much less use — chemical weapons.”

Of course, there have also been times when Congress has debated war authorizations without clearing them, only to have an administration move ahead anyway, effectively eroding the 1973 War Powers Resolution (PL 93-148).

In 1999, the House narrowly rejected — in a 213-213 vote — a Senate-passed measure that would have authorized U.S. participation in NATO airstrikes. The Clinton administration proceeded with the operation, and Congress ended up appropriating funds for the mission.

At the time, lawmakers criticized the floor debate for being overly politicized and not terribly substantive.

“All we’re doing in all of these resolutions today is sending messages,” House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairman Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., said during the debate.

In 2011, the House debated — and was unable to pass — resolutions that would have authorized or blocked U.S. involvement in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, holding votes several weeks after the United States had joined the operation. The Senate never held a vote.


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