2:40am

Wed September 4, 2013
NPR Story

Congress Should Examine Fine Print When Voting On Syria

Originally published on Wed September 4, 2013 4:42 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And as Congress prepares to vote on authorizing force, Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter has some advice.

STEPHEN L. CARTER: The one thing I would strongly recommend is that members of Congress actually read the resolution before deciding whether to vote for it or not.

MONTAGNE: He says it's hard to approve of a president waging war while still limiting the power the president is given.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Stephen L. Carter's books include "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama." And he's been following his own advice by reading the legal language on which lawmakers may vote. The White House proposed a resolution while senators are drafting their own. And Carter gives an example of his concern by reading from president's version.

CARTER: The president is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate, in connection with - notice, it doesn't say to stop, to punish - in connection with the use of chemical weapons or what other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria.

INSKEEP: Which is not as precise as Stephen L. Carter might like.

CARTER: It doesn't limit the president's authority, for example, to acting in Syria. As I read this resolution, if the president thought that a terror group in Yemen was going to obtain or trying to obtain chemical weapons from Syria, he could attack the terror group in Yemen. It's a very broad resolution and Congress has a long history of voting broad powers to presidents and then later regretting it, whether we think of the use of military force resolution in 2001 after 9/11 or the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964.

INSKEEP: Does the concern you raise point to a larger reality, that war itself is unpredictable and once you approve getting started on one, you can't be sure where it's going to end up?

CARTER: Oh, I think that's absolutely correct. Once you decide to go down the road of using military force, the results are unpredictable. Sometimes you have to do it anyway. Sometimes you may have a moral or humanitarian obligation to intervene, but it's important to recognize the enormous risks that you take on.

INSKEEP: Do you think the United States has a moral obligation to intervene in Syria?

CARTER: I actually do think that the killing in Syria has reached a point where there is a moral obligation on the part of the world to act. But the truth is, the world isn't going to act, and when we speak of an obligation on the part of the world, whether we're thinking of, say, Rwanda in the 1990s or what's going on in Syria today, if the United States doesn't do it, it's really not going to get done.

A lot of people wish there were some international force, that the U.N. could do it or something like that, but the truth is, if something is sufficiently horrific that you've got to call the international cops, the U.S. is the biggest cop on the block and there's no getting around that. Even with defense cutbacks in recent years, we spend 42 cents of every defense dollar spent in the entire world.

We're the only people really who can do it.

INSKEEP: Is this about more than just chemical weapons for you?

CARTER: It's the slaughter. It's the size of the slaughter. It's the number of people being killed. I still remember in the 1990s when we saw at least 100,000 slaughtered in Rwanda and the West, including the United States, not only stood by and did nothing but stood by and were unwilling even to use the word genocide. I'm not suggesting the U.S. can be the world's policeman and go everywhere there's a trouble spot.

I am suggesting there's a point at which a slaughter becomes so enormous that something has to be done about it.

INSKEEP: I'm listening to you and trying to figure out where you stand, Stephen L. Carter, and I think I hear you saying be really careful about the power you give the president, but in the end maybe this is something the United States has to do. Is that where you're at?

CARTER: I think that something has to be done both in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons and frankly because of the enormous slaughter that is going on in Syria, which is spilling over into other countries. There are going to be effects on U.S. interests, but even if there weren't effects on U.S. interests, there's a point at which a slaughter has to be stopped and maybe we're the only ones who can do it.

At the same time that Congress has to recognize that if this resolution passes, that the president will have a significantly strengthened hand and significantly broader authority to do things beyond simply stopping this particular slaughter.

INSKEEP: Even many people supporting this resolution have used the phrase no boots on the ground. They want to have U.S. power, but not U.S. troops. Is that a realistic limitation?

CARTER: Well, that's always the interesting question. That is, assume that somehow the intervention perhaps destroys Syria's chemical weapons stocks, maybe incinerates the Syrian air force, and that might tip the balance in the war and then Assad ends up getting overthrown. And the question is, how much influence or authority do you want to have over what follows?

Without boots on the ground, it's hard to have any influence, but once you put boots on the ground, it's really hard to avoid sending more and more and more of them.

INSKEEP: Stephen L. Carter is author of "The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In the Age Of Obama," among other books. Thanks for talking with us.

CARTER: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: