On September 9, 2013, the Obama administration opened an inquiry into the legality of crossing sovereign borders for the purpose of taking military action.
The New York Times reporter Charles Savage wrote a piece on the limited types of permissible military interventions, but notably left out JFK and Vietnam.Usual cases of cross-border military action by the United States have been justified by a treaty with an ally or a United Nations resolution. Neither of these criteria is present with respect to a possible attack on Syria. Off the top, it would seem that, in planning to attack Syria as punishment for its violation of two treaties banning the use of chemical weapons, President Obama is setting an entirely new precedent based on the executive powers act.
President Kennedy made use of his own executive power to intervene militarily in Vietnam, but ran into trouble with the words he chose to authorize the action. As brilliant as Kennedy was with words, having staved off the Cuban missile crisis by using the word "quarantine" instead of "embargo," he defined the invasion of Vietnam as a "police action." This came naturally, since he was already cracking down in Southeast Asia on the illegal opium trade and heroin distribution network that was feeding America's domestic heroin problem. It was the beginning of the drug war.
It was in the debate in Congress over the issue of intervention in Vietnam that JFK's "police action" came under attack and started the U.S. anti-war movement. The Congressional hawks in the debate presented the Vietnamese as communists, refuting French President De Gaulle, who had stated correctly that "the last people on this earth not to be capitalists are the Vietnamese." In any case, in an age when communications were somewhat limited, as compared to the openness made possible by the electronic media of today, our government proceeded with a full-fledged debate about a war that was already raging.
What President Obama seems to have done with respect to Syria looks more like a mean fact and a soft shoe. He talks with a hawk's rhetoric about attacking immediately. Then he goes to Congress to chill the heat of anger generated by the Syrian government's resort to chemical warfare.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson, after appealing to Congress, was granted permission to declare war based on a treaty violation--but that broken treaty was with the United States. The war was "Tripoli," and we lost.
The circumstances of the Tripoli war were not too different from the Somalian pirate attacks the U.S. encountered in the early 1980s. In the early 1800s, the Sultan along the Barbary Coast of eastern Africa decided to extract a toll from all passing ships at sea. That brought him into conflict with President Jefferson, who was determined to resist paying that toll and ensure freedom of the seas. In the end, our American Marines went into Tripoli and fought toward the palace, but were pushed back to sea.
While the U.S. officially lost the Tripoli war, it inflicted great harm on the pirate nation, which eventually became Libya. When we refused to pay any toll, despite the failed invasion, the Sultan simply stopped all tolls on the high seas.
The Congressional debate over Syria that has now been opened by President Obama seems very much like the one faced by JFK. Again, it involves a contest of power between the Congress, which seeks to retain its Constitutional right to authorize war, and the President, who seeks to fulfill what he sees as a U.S. obligation to act--unilaterally, if necessary-- in behalf of a greater good. Carrying out such a mission while breaching the sovereignty of another nation is surely not historically unprecedented for the United States--although it was a failure under JFK.
Obama's problem now with Congressional approval for an attack on Syria, laden as it is with protests by senior military officers, gnawing budget concerns at home, and the whole question of "humanitarian war," recalls JFK's problems in obtaining Congressional approval for the war in Vietnam. JFK's mistakes with his "police actions" in South East Asia to protect our missile emplacements and his efforts to suppress the organized crime of heroin distribution that threatened our national security undermined the precedent he sought to establish for taking military action in Vietnam based on the President's determination that it was needed in the cause of a greater good.
Obama wants to profit by the mistakes made by President Kennedy in making his narrow case for Congressional authorization of the war in Vietnam. To do that, he has now taken his case to Congress for a fully open debate based on the merits of the issue at hand.