I do not want to see another American killed or hurt fighting overseas, nor do I believe that the United States should respond, nor has the capacity to respond, to every act of aggression around the world. However, for the reasons discussed below, on balance it is in our best interests to respond forcefully to the unlawful use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The use of chemical weapons reflects a total disregard for humanity and the rule of law. It has been outlawed for almost a century. The United States has more troops stationed in foreign lands than any other country. There are thousands upon thousands of Americans living and working overseas. Their safety and our vital interests are threatened if other nations and groups like Al-Qaeda conclude they can use chemical weapons or violate other international norms with impunity.
we must acknowledge that doing right is not always popular, and it is rarely easy. Going alone to do the right thing is one of the burdens of being the greatest country on the face of the earth.
- Alberto Gonzales
The president has asked for congressional authorization to use force, but insists he does not need it under these circumstances. Certainly other presidents acting alone have initiated military action, thus establishing a practice and precedent. However, practice and precedent do not always provide the answer to the question whether government action is constitutional. Does a violation of the chemical convention, despite a direct warning by the United States, threaten vital U.S. interests and thus justify the use of force? I do not have access to classified information; however, an argument can be made that it does. If so, then the U.S. response should be proportional and effective in furthering our vital interests.
Whatever the reasons, the president has sought congressional authorization, and the country is stronger whenever the elected branches of government act together. Having asked for authorization, I hope the president respects the will of the American people as reflected by the votes of their elected representatives. He should abide by the decision of Congress, unless circumstances change that further threaten vital U.S. interests. Furthermore, I suggest the president reassure the American people that he will not take action if Congress votes “no,” so that members of Congress understand their vote has real consequences for the people of Syria and for our enemies around the world watching to see if we will have the courage to confront them should they choose to ignore U.S. warnings and violate international law.
The American people are weary from years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and understandably skeptical about a limited military operation. War is unpredictable, so we must be wary of promises of limited involvement. The Syrian government will likely respond if we use force on their country. As an ally of Syria, Russia may also take action, as may other Arab states. In that event, the president may be forced to act in self-defense and to protect vital American interests. Yes, Congress can constitutionally limit our initial engagement in Syria. However, once military action commences circumstances may require the president to rely on his own constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief to expand the use of force. This is what many Americans and members of Congress fear. The Administration is undoubtedly anticipating and planning - as they should - for retaliation if we use force. For this reason, the president should level with the American people about what our government believes may happen if we proceed down this road.
Some opponents of intervention declare this is a situation of the president’s own doing, believing we should not risk American lives in order to preserve his credibility. Perhaps the president has misjudged how to best deal with the Syrian regime; however, the ongoing debate over the congressional resolution is not about one person - it is about U.S. foreign policy and doing what is right and in our vital interests.
I wish that members of the international community who profess to support the rule of law would join us in punishing this clear assault on international law and values. The fact we stand alone speaks volumes about how America - including our president - is perceived by others around the world. Yet, we must acknowledge that doing right is not always popular, and it is rarely easy. Going alone to do the right thing is one of the burdens of being the greatest country on the face of the earth.
We have a distinguished record and unique history of delivering other nations from tyranny, as well as championing the rule of law. We did so in the past because to have done otherwise would have threatened our own vital interests. No other people have sacrificed more for liberty and freedom around the world. Sometimes that struggle has been alone, sometimes in concert with others. Either way, it is the price of leadership.
Alberto R. Gonzales is the former U.S. Attorney General and White House Counsel in the George W. Bush Administration. Presently he is the Dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of Law at Belmont University College of Law.