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Commentary: Debate Over Syria Highlighted Separation Of Powers


When President Obama asked Congress to make its own decision on invention in the Syrian crisis, it marked a break from other recent military actions, where the commander in chief didn’t seek such approval from the legislative branch.

And while the Syrian government is now pledging to abide by a UN Resolution calling for the destruction of that country’s chemical weapons stockpile, Fresno State philosophy professor Andrew Fiala says the initial debate over military action was significant. In this edition of FM89’s commentary series called “The Moral Is,” he reflects on the relationship between our democracy and our willingness to go to war. 


It is a good thing that President Obama decided to ask Congress for approval to attack Syria.  The ensuing public debate may have helped avoid another Middle Eastern war.  Some worry that the President looked weak and that the U.S. lost credibility.  But one of the central principles of the American system is the idea that Congress should supervise and authorize war-making activity.  Article One of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.  And the War Powers Resolution of 1973 requires Congressional authorization for military engagements.

Some may think that presidents should have unilateral power to go to war.  War requires unified central power.  In the era of intercontinental missiles and terrorism, threats are fluid, fast, and furious.  The necessities of modern military power appear to require that the commander-in-chief be given the freedom to act—without protracted Congressional debate. 

Related to this is a practical concern about morale and unity of purpose.  Congressional debate can be divisive.  But war appears to require social solidarity, which can be undermined by public deliberation.

Despite these concerns, public debate and Congressional approval of war remain important ideas.  Unlike in Egypt, where the army has overthrown a democratically elected government, Americans believe the military should obey the will of the people and defend the Constitution.

Civilian control of the military is a central feature of mixed forms of government like our own.  The concept of mixed government has deep roots that extend back to the ideas of the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero.  It is appealing to imagine a benevolent central authority who protects the commonwealth.  But benevolent dictators can become tyrannical—as happened in Rome.  To prevent tyranny, Cicero advocated mixed government.  This idea influenced the Framers who created our system of checks and balances and the division of powers.

In addition to preventing despotism, public debate about war can restrain militarism.  The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant—a contemporary of the American Framers—argued that one of the keys to developing peace was to require popular approval of war.  Kant thought that if people voted about war, there would be fewer wars.  It’s easy for rulers to send other people’s children to die in war and to spend other people’s money on warfare.  But it is harder to get “we, the people,” to agree to sacrifice our children and contribute our tax dollars to warfare.

States stockpile horrible weapons.  Armies turn against governments and open fire on their own people.  In this context, the idea that military power ought to be limited by democratic control and the Constitutional division of powers is a significant step in the right direction.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.

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