The People Say No to War with Syria

The Constitution did not keep President Obama from attacking Syria. The people did.

The Constitution did not keep President Obama from attacking Syria. The people did. Think about that.

Obama, his top advisers, and many of his partisans and opponents in Congress insist that the president of the United States has the constitutional authority to attack another country without a declaration of war or so-called “authorization for the use of military force” even if that country poses no threat whatever to the United States, the American people, or what are vaguely called “our interests.” This seems wrong, especially in light of the 1973 War Powers Act. But Obama already asserted this alleged authority in Libya. Bill Clinton did it in Kosovo and Bosnia through NATO and the UN. George H.W. Bush did it in Panama. Ronald Reagan did it in Lebanon and Grenada. And so on back to Harry Truman in Korea. (I’m ignoring the many covert wars.)

Constitution, Shmonstitution. War Powers, Shmar Powers.

Nevertheless, Obama has not bombed Syria (yet). Two weeks ago he told us he had decided to do so, but then he decided to put the question to Congress. After Russia offered to help collect and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and Bashar al-Assad agreed, Obama asked Congress to delay the vote.

What happened?

The people happened. Public-opinion polls showed at once that most of us do not want Obama to commit an act of war against Syria. Furthermore, the people inundated Congress with calls and emails. Because of this (and in some cases personal conviction), most members of Congress also do not want war with Syria. Obama got the message: he was heading for sure defeat in the House of Representatives and perhaps in the Senate. He couldn’t bear the prospect of rebuff.

Russian president Vladimir Putin gave him a graceful way out. Because the people didn’t want war, when a possible diplomatic solution arose, Obama had to go for it. The people gave him no choice.

It’s amusing to listen to the establishment pundits who are appalled that members of Congress are watching opinion polls rather than “exercising leadership” on Syria. Not long ago, many of these same pundits urged members of Congress to heed the polls and pass expanded background checks for gun purchases. I’m looking hard for the principle here, but for the life of me I can’t find it.

So the people—not the Constitution—stayed Obama’s hand.

There’s a lesson here. No paper constitution ever restrained a government. What ultimately restrains governments is a sufficiently large number of people with certain ideas—an ideology—about the limits to state power. If those ideas change, the power of government will expand or contract, depending on the case, even if no single word of the paper constitution changes. Constitutions don’t interpret or enforce themselves. Methodological individualists know that only persons do such things, and they do them on the basis of their ideology (explicit or implicit). It’s people all the way down. (See my “Where Is the Constitution?”)

This doesn’t mean that politicians slavishly obey the people. But politicians do care about elections and are aware that there are limits to state action set by the dominant (tacit) ideology that they cross at their peril. Moreover, government has immense power to shape what people want. It can also obscure what it’s doing, raising the cost of finding out what really goes on, as well as the cost of resisting if the people do find out. (See my review of Charlotte Twight’s book on this subject, Dependent on D.C., and my “Democracy of Dunces,” a review of Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.)

Étienne de La Boétie, the 16th-century French political philosopher, pointed out what should be obvious: the ruled always outnumber their rulers. In The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, he asked,

how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation!…

Obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude.

A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it.

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  • ||

    There’s a lesson here. No paper constitution ever restrained a government. What ultimately restrains governments is a sufficiently large number of people with certain ideas—an ideology—about the limits to state power.

    Pretty much. Show me a right in the constitution, and I'll show you the angle a supreme court could get congress and the president around around it.

  • barc4d||

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  • timbo||

    Thank goodness Obama is clearly one of the biggest morons to ever walk the earth. I am starting to think he is dumber than Bush which, when contemplated, is mind blowing.
    This dipshit is the epitome of what seems to be the future of all politics; A guy who can speak well with a script in public but who is in all reality, just a stupid figurehead that is incapable of anything other than projecting his ego.

  • Libertarius||

    Your problem lies in the overly-generous assumption that Obummer, or any collectivist, even possesses an ego. The collectivist is proudly selfless.

    More fundamentally, you presume the materialist-collectivist axiom that the individual ego is the source of all the problems faced by man. Quite the opposite is true.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I think every collectivist has big egos, as evidenced by the fact that they believe that only they are right-thinkers, and everybody else ought to think like them, and would if only they had been properly educated and brainwashed.

    I can't think of any mere conqueror who had a bigger ego. As someone else said, it would be better to have a conqueror for dictator than some self-selected collectivist who is doing things for your good.

  • Bramblyspam||

    That bit about war-weariness so reminds me of a letter written by one Betsy Toll to the Oregonian newspaper. (I don't read that paper, but I saw a copy of the letter online). Here's what she wrote:

    "The president and others in the mind-dead chambers of Congress patronizingly refer to the American people as "war-weary."

    Well, here's big news: We are not war-weary. We're war sick -- sick of war and of the lies and disinformation that lead us into war.

    We're sick of people dying from bombs and gas. Sick of children dying for politicians' purposes. Sick of soldiers coming home with shattered minds and bodies. Sick of collateral damage. Sick of bombed-out cities and schools. Sick of shattered homes and hearts. Sick of war profiteers. Sick of bureaucrats hiding the truth in the name of "national security."

    We're sick of budgets that afford war but not education or health care. Sick of political parties that all feed at the same trough. Sick of politics that trump humanity and basic human decency. Sick of cynicism and secrecy and spying.

    Sorry, Congress, but we are not weary at all. We're sick of the lies, sick of excuses and sick of aggression. We're sick of paying for your shameful wars, and sick of our children's future being pawned to satisfy your war lust. We are furious that war after war after war is launched in our name.

    We are anything but weary. We're done."

    -- BETSY TOLL
    Southeast Portland
    Sept 7 2013

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Amen to Betsy.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    We ain't weary, we're royally pissed off, lol

    betsyforcongress.com

  • Number 2||

    "We're sick of budgets that afford war but not education or health care."

    Sorry. She lost me there.

    I am sick of people with endless notions of how to spend other people's money. And of those who believe that seizing other people's property is their God-given right.

    And by the way Betty...we cannot afford war or "education" or "health care." Or haven't you been reading the papers?

  • John Galt||

    So Sheldon believes a majority of people is where our faith should be placed?

    It's true, a majority, albeit a slight one, just happened to be right in the case of Syria.

    Only problem is that history is made of a great many examples of clear, and large, majorities being completely wrong on many issues. And often with horrific outcomes.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    We should reject majority *rule* while accepting - nay, welcoming - a majority *veto.*

    Of course it's wrong to say that today's temporary majority should be able to make policy, regardless of human rights, separation of powers, or federalism.

    But it's certainly wrong, and anti-liberty, to say that a minority should be able to rule, implementing policy initiatives opposed by the majority.

    In other words, the majority should have a *veto* on our rulers' clever plans, but they should be restrained from imposing their own ideas on an unwilling minority.

    Isn't that the vision of the Founders?

  • John Galt||

    IMHO, a binding contract that places strict limits on governmental powers, thereby guaranteeing liberties shall not be infringed upon would be the most wise approach.

    In going the extra miles to absolutely guarantee many liberties, a completely redundant action given the contract strictly limits governmental actions, the Founders made quite clear their vision.

    Of course, what I prefer matters not. The American people have let it be known they shall choose security, and "free" trinkets, over liberty in virtually every case.

  • AdamJ||

    I don't think he's stating a preference, just a reality. Im sure he would prefer that the constitution be followed, but if the people don't demand it, it's very easy to get away with skirting around it.

  • Ron||

    Actually Amercian's had been threatened by both Lebanon and Granada. Lebanon had bombed a plane with Americans and Granada was holding Americans hostage. What Americans are in Syria. BTW Some American soldiers were killed in Panama and the government said we are at war with America. So Bush took care of that. Bush and Regan are off your list.

  • Mizchief||

    His dumbest move is that his party who is on the whole more anit-war than the republicans, would approve of his actions on the bases of false humanity alone. He was able to skate by on the Libya attacks on the reserves of the infatuation of his followers, but that well is now empty and there is no other proper distraction for him to get away with it.

    One thing is for certain, when Russia starts to look like the peaceful voice of reason on in the world, we really need to take a long hard look at what we have become.

  • sasob||

    Or perhaps we need to take a long hard look at Russia's motives.

  • Number 2||

    I dispute your premise about the Dems being more "anti-war" than the GOP. Each party may have its anti-war wing. But look at the past 100 years and then tell me that Democrats oppose war. To the contrary, they understand very well that war is mother's milk to the State.

  • Square||

    Not historically, but I don't think anyone can deny that since the 1970s the Democrats have at least toyed with presenting themselves as the "anti-war" party. Before that, there was no anti-war party - Democrats have historically opposed wars started by Republicans and vice-versa.

    Since the 1970s, I think in practice it is still the same, but Republicans don't have to talk their base into wars, for the most part, while Democrats have to present their wars as humanitarian actions and promise not to hurt anyone and that sort of thing.

  • BLEEDINELL||

    Actually, Putin stopped Obama; the people may temporarily enjoy the illusion of being heard, but Obama would have proceeded without our approval.

  • Ann N||

    I disagree with this article.

    I also hope the bad guys have some achilles heel, and when you see them cave when popular opinion is against them its easy to have confirmation bias. we hope we can do some good and have some control.

    i think the truth is much more basic and cynical. i think obama has certain metrics and certain goals he is beholden to. he passed obamacare against the wishes of the american ppl (agenda trumped opinion in that case).

    what a presidents job is, since JFK, is to advanced the 2party superstate while keeping the populace complacent.

    sometimes obama just steamrolls over popular opinion and does whatever he wants. you cant just ignore those examples when forming an opinion of his strategy.

    as for obama's metrics he is doing an awesome job. he has unheard of approval rating and has significantly advanced his agenda. he COULD take a hit in syria and still have more approval than bush did.

    if you look at how it plays out, he does something ppl dont like, he acts like it was right, he acts like they should not be alarmed, he forgives them for the schism, and carries on like nothing ever happened. he goes against public opinion all the time, he is just skillful at hiding the fact.

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