Africa and the Middle East

A Genuine Public Debate on Military Action in Syria

September 4, 2013  • Dan Glickman

Dan Glickman is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program, a nongovernmental, nonpartisan educational program for members of the United States Congress.

I applaud President Barack Obama for sending a resolution to Congress that would, if passed, legitimize any military action the United States would take against the Assad government’s use of sarin gas in Syria. This bold action by the president is not without political risk, but if ultimately approved, will demonstrate that despite deep policy disagreements within the government and among the American people, the United States can still stand together on the international stage.

When I was in Congress I was a Democrat who supported President George H. W. Bush’s Iraq war resolution following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. That bipartisan vote gave credibility and legitimacy to the military action later taken. This was a rare occurrence, as in the last 40 years, Congress has been an irregularly consulted force on US foreign policy and military action. While President George W. Bush initially sought congressional approval for war with Iraq and Afghanistan, his administration’s failure to maintain public and congressional support for the war effort has clearly been a factor in souring congressional and public support for future military endeavors. 

By bringing a resolution to Congress, Obama has put the onus to convince the public and its representatives in Congress squarely where it needs to be: on himself and his administration officials. This won’t be an easy task as the American public is weary from over a decade of war in the Middle East. At a recent Aspen Institute conference I attended, the skepticism of congressional legislators — and by extension, of their constituents — regarding the utility of military intervention in the Middle East was very high. Legislators now returning to Washington from a month-long congressional recess are not carrying with them overwhelming constituent support for the indispensable role of global US leadership. Obama has a big task ahead of him to convince the nation of the importance of action in Syria, and I appreciate that he has confronted this responsibility head on, like any great leader should. This won’t be an easy sell, but having this debate is the right thing to do.

Establishing legitimacy and a thorough, robust, and open public debate over proposed military action are signs of a healthy and moral democracy. Bipartisan support for foreign policy action would show the world that although we have had troubles governing ourselves for the past several years and demonstrated certain vulnerabilities of our system of government, we can still present a unified front. 

As the debate over this resolution gets underway, some disheartening early indications show a certain degree of partisanship that Americans have come to expect (and disdain) in their government. On the right, there is a segment of legislators committed to opposing the president simply because they don’t like him. But unlike some other recent debates, there is a significant group of Republican legislators who are carefully considering the substance of the president’s argument for intervention without simply making the cynical calculation that opposing Obama is good politics. There is a similar dynamic on the left, with a group of legislators deeply skeptical of any military engagements, and another group who see military action as something to be carefully considered and debated. Democrats are not simply going to vote to support this resolution because Obama is one of their own.

Whatever the outcome, the nature of this debate is a refreshing reminder that our system of government can function well and in the true interests of the American people. A robust public debate over the course of action we should pursue in light of a dangerous dictator’s use of weapons of mass destruction coupled with a foreign policy decision reached in a bipartisan fashion will be good for America.