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Syria, Threats of Force, and Constitutional War Powers

Author: Matthew C. Waxman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy
November 7, 2013
Yale Law Journal Online


In August 2013, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad launched a major sarin gas attack against opponents and civilians inside Syria, flagrantly crossing the "red line"—widely interpreted as an implicit threat to intervene militarily in response to chemical weapons use—that President Obama had previously declared and reiterated in public remarks.1 Amid widespread suggestions that American credibility was now on the line, President Obama responded on August 31 with two simultaneous announcements: first, he had decided that the United States should respond militarily with limited strikes against Syrian government targets; and, second, notwithstanding his insistence that he had constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief to take that action unilaterally, he would seek congressional approval to do so.2 The Obama Administration then began an intensive lobbying campaign to convince skeptical legislators and the public that following through on the proposed military strike was necessary not only to deter further chemical weapons attacks by Syrian government forces, but to deter the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction by other hostile regimes and terrorist organizations.3

Almost two hundred years earlier, another President drew a red line. In his 1823 address to Congress, President Monroe declared to European powers that the United States would oppose any efforts to colonize or reassert control in the Western Hemisphere.4

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