"When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory," President Obama said in a speech Tuesday night.
Tuesday night the President made his case for military action in Syria, trying to convince a skeptical American public. Even with the President's promise of no boots on the ground, many polls show most Americans do not support military action in Syria.
Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter Welch have said more debate is needed, and they're waiting to see the outcome of a potential diplomatic solution in the United Nations. Senator Bernie Sanders said he's also waiting for that but does not want to involve the United States in a bloody and complicated civil war.
The President has asked Congress for a vote. Under the Constitution, Congress alone has the power to declare war. But that hasn't happened since World War II. And a formal declaration isn't necessary for the President to send troops out.
"Under the War Powers Act, a President can commit American forces for up to 30 days and then go to Congress afterwards and ask for some kind of post-hoc approval," says University of Vermont Political Science Professor Gregory Gause.
What qualifies as "approval" can fall into a grey area too. Gause says President Obama authorized the air war over Libya for months without a vote from Congress. Approval for the Korean War came from a U.N. resolution and Congressional funding. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was used as justification for escalating involvement in Vietnam, though some question whether that was appropriate. More recently, both the Gulf War and the Iraq War did have congressional votes in support of committing American forces.
But if Congress votes against military action in Syria, could the President act anyway? Gause says it would be unprecedented.
"It would be really hard for the President to act in the face of a negative vote from Congress. That would, in a lot of peoples' interpretations, be an impeachable offense," he says.
And if there's a split vote in Congress, Gause says the President's hands are still tied.
"I think the only thing a President could do in that situation is claim new circumstances. And that may be a very big change on the ground in the region where this is occurring. It might be a change at the international level," he says.
International approval like a resolution from the U.N. isn't necessary either, though it could help sway support in Congress, which controls the purse strings.
"Congress can cut off funding for a military mission anytime it wants," Gause points out.
That resolution before the United Nations is a Russian proposal for Syria's president to turn over chemical weapons. Now Capitol Hill is waiting to see what happens with that before any possible vote on U.S. military action.
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