Troops with the 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment patrol in Iraq in 2011.

Troops with the 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment patrol in Iraq in 2011. U.S. Army Photo/Capt. Christopher Miles

How the 'War on Terror' Changed the Way We Go to War

The irregular nature of the past decade of warfare has emboldened presidents to order military action in other nations. Now Congress is saying, ‘Not so fast.’ By Stephanie Gaskell

It’s been a long time since the United States declared war against another nation and fought army against army on a conventional battlefield. Even the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which initially focused on taking out Saddam Hussein’s army, quickly morphed into irregular warfare with U.S. and NATO troops fighting rogue groups with different agendas united against the occupation.

Now America is more war-weary than ever and no longer interested in getting involved with the problems in far-away countries. Saturday’s decision by Obama to ask Congress to vote on whether to strike Syria illustrates the new mood in this country: No more war unless absolutely necessary.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ‘war’ has come to mean something different for the U.S. military, which has spent the last decade battling all kinds of unconventional enemies who use guerilla warfare and are more transient than ever. Both President Bush and Obama have used this new landscape to authorize military action in places most Americans never heard of before, like Afghanistan and Iraq, Yemen and Libya. The threats facing the United States are so great and ever-changing, they require different responses of force – and not necessarily the approval of Congress.

Obama ordered military action in Libya without consulting Congress. While the campaign was successful in taking down the brutal dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country is still a mess two years later.

While Obama believes that the use of chemical weapons in Syria surpasses a red-line that leaves the U.S. no chance but to respond, he also knows that a unilateral strike in a country mired in a bloody, complicated civil war is not as appetizing as it was on 9/11. And the claim that a strike against Syria would not last long, would avoid U.S. casualties and would not pull the U.S. into a broader conflict in the Middle East is no longer as believable as it once was.

In his address in the Rose Garden on Saturday, Obama acknowledged that his decision to strike Syria would only be bolstered by a congressional vote. “Our democracy is stronger when the President and the people’s representatives stand together,” he said.

“I know well that we are weary of war. We’ve ended one war in Iraq. We’re ending another in Afghanistan.  And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military. In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. And that's why we’re not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else’s war,” he said. “Instead, we’ll continue to support the Syrian people through our pressure on the Assad regime, our commitment to the opposition, our care for the displaced, and our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people.”

While many are applauding Obama’s choice to consult Congress, others question whether it undermines the power of the U.S. presidency. Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y. said in doing so “President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents … The president doesn't need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line” on the use of chemical weapons.

That Obama has bowed to Congress on the question of Syria should come as no surprise, however. Not only is he a former senator, so is his Secretary of State John Kerry, his Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Vice President Joe Biden.

“I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Obama said.  

What’s also telling in his decision to put the Syria question in the hands of Congress is Obama’s blatant dismissal of the United Nations Security Council. “I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad accountable,” Obama said.

Working with the legislative branch on a response to Syria backfired for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, when the British Parliament voted earlier this week against any military action -- something Obama is very mindful of.

“Many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action,” Obama said.

Now Obama, like the rest of the country, will have to wait for a Congress that’s hugely unpopular and highly dysfunctional to come back to Washington to vote on whether it’s in U.S. interests to get involved in yet another irregular and unpredictable military conflict.