Stay out of Syria’s civil war

Members of Congress of both parties are right to balk at President Barack Obama’s request for money to arm rebels fighting the Syrian regime.

“If we intervene militarily, we will exacerbate the situation,” said Rep. Chris Gibson, a Republican who used to represent part of this area until the recent redistricting. He knows war better than most members of Congress; he served more than two decades in the Army with multiple tours to Iraq and deployments to Kosovo and Haiti. He said he was concerned about the U.S. getting “sucked into a very difficult situation,” especially since budget cuts have hit the military hard.

Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont warned about “Americanizing a civil war.”

Joining them on a resolution were Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota.

Reps. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, introduced a separate but similar bill that would block the administration from arming the Syrian rebels without congressional approval first.

These politicians understand something that most, surprisingly, don’t: Americans are sick of war. It kills people, it wastes tremendous amounts of public money that could be used for better things, it worsens our country’s good name, it creates more problems than it solves – and except in rare and debatable circumstances, it’s morally wrong. Yet with Syria now following Libya, it’s hard to see when our country will stop getting involved in other countries’ civil wars.

After many months of doing nothing to aid the Syrian rebels, Obama now plans to give them substantive help. But some lawmakers want to know more about his plan.

They are right to be skeptical. Some remember U.S. aid to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Much of it went to the Mujahideen, which attracted Osama bin Laden and others whom the U.S. would later fight against. There appear to be few, if any, guarantees U.S. aid to Syrian rebels would not fall into similarly hostile hands.

Also, the Syrian conflict could be a tinderbox in a tense region of the world, where the U.S. is frequently blamed for meddling. Why inflame it? If there was ever a case for containment, this is it.

To be clear, we are deeply concerned about the horrors of this two-year-old civil war and the potential for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army to use more chemical weapons against his own people. We strongly support the U.S. using diplomatic and economic pressure to help the Syrian people and end the oppression. But it’s not our fight, and any armaments we give the rebels will be used to kill, not to heal.

Finally, this is a chance for Congress to assert its authority in matters of war. The Constitution gives warmaking responsibility to Congress, even though the president is commander in chief of the military. The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires the president to seek congressional authority after engaging in hostile actions, but presidents from both political parties have violated it consistently.

In 2011, Rep. Gibson introduced a bill to amend the War Powers Resolution and let the president use military force on his own only when Congress has authorized it through a war declaration, law or treaty commitment, or when the U.S. is attacked or in imminent danger of attack.

Almost a year later, with few joining him on that bill, Rep. Gibson told the Enterprise something that’s stuck with us for its pithiness:

“I have seen firsthand what happens in war,” he said. “I can tell you that you can give a million descriptions of it, but at the end of the day … you end up killing people and breaking things. You can call it any kind of effort you want, but you’ve got to recognize that it’s a very serious decision, one that should only be undertaken after a long discussion, the American people’s involvement and a vote in Congress.”

War should be a last resort. The U.S. should not act as world police but rather, as much as possible, a force for peace.