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Before continuing wars in Iraq and Syria, Congress must vote

Already, President Joe Biden has been presented with foreign policy crises calling for both the exercise of executive authority and a balance with Congressional responsibilities.

Under our constitution, diplomatic relations between nations are the president’s prerogative but the power to declare war belongs to Congress. This distinction would benefit from reaffirmation now, at the very start of the Biden administration.

Last week, Biden authorized the release of an intelligence finding that Russia’s security service was responsible for the attempted assassination of Aleksei Navalny last year, using a poison, novichok, outlawed by international agreements to which Russia is a party.

The week before, Biden’s administration released a report that Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in a gruesome dismembering inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Biden imposed sanctions against officials in both the Russian and Saudi governments but on neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Mohammed bin Salman personally.

These are areas properly within the responsibility of the president. Criticism is easy that Biden should have imposed more serious sanctions on Putin and Mohammed bin Salman. However, Biden has to deal pragmatically with those in power; wishing for more moral leaders will not bring them into office, and there is much we need to do with Russia and Saudi Arabia, no matter who leads them.

Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford dealt with Mao Tse Tung despite his having directed the killing of millions during the Great Leap Forward and the Korean War.

Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman did the same with Josef Stalin, who possibly exceeded Hitler as the greatest mass-killer in the world’s history. Even President Jimmy Carter, who professed to make human rights the central guidepost of his foreign policy, found it necessary to overlook the extrajudicial killings and tortures ordered by the Shah of Iran.  Shortly before the Shah was deposed, Carter travelled to Tehran, reaffirming America’s support for the Shah and calling Iran an island of stability in a turbulent part of the world.

Last week, U.S. military stationed at an Iraqi airbase were the target of missile attacks launched by militias linked to Iran. This was the same base attacked a year before, after the U.S. killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s clandestine forces throughout the world.

The attacks follow an attack last month, when Iranian-backed militias attacked U.S. troops in Irbil, Iraq; in response, the Biden Administration bombed Iranian backed militia bases in Syria.  The attack by Iran’s surrogates last week was in response to that bombing.

At the time of the most recent U.S. attacks, the Pentagon spokesman said, “we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.” That, obviously, is not what is occurring. What is happening in Syria and Iraq, rather, is war.

The beginning of a new administration is an excellent time to get these lines uncrossed. Whether America should be engaged in war in Syria and Iraq is a question for the people’s representatives in Congress. It is not sufficient to observe that Biden is simply continuing activity from previous administrations.

President Barack Obama asserted the right to attack Syrian President Assad for “crossing the red line” in using chemical weapons, though Obama then backed down. President Donald Trump bombed Syria on several occasions because of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Congress did stand up to President Trump’s military assistance for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, invoking the War Powers Resolution for the first time in over twenty years. Trump vetoed the resolution, but Congress was right to try it. Congress needs to do the same now.

We are at war in Syria and Iraq. Whether we should be is for Congress to say. Politically, a congressmember might prefer just to let the president handle this question. That, however, is not what the Constitution requires.

Tom Campbell is a professor of law and a professor of economics at Chapman University. He served five terms in Congress. In 1999, over the opposition of both parties’ leaders, he brought a motion to the House floor invoking the War Powers Resolution on the question of President Bill Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia. 

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