If you wanted to hear a full and open debate about the wisdom of going to war in Syria right now, you’d have to cross the Atlantic.
President Obama is considering a limited missile strike against Syria—in coordination with U.S. allies—in response to the Syrian regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons. Airstrikes could come as early as Thursday, though Obama has said “we have not yet made a decision” on the next steps.
In London Thursday, members of Parliament conducted an emergency session on the issue. Prime Minister David Cameron made the case for intervention, while some lawmakers in all three major parties sounded skeptical.
The government motion to set the stage for possible intervention in Syria was defeated by 285 to 272 votes. Prime Minister Cameron said he strongly believed “in the need for a tough response in the use of chemical weapons but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons.” It was clear that Parliament “does not want to see British military action [in Syria],” he said. “I get that, and the Government will act according.”
In the U.S., many lawmakers are still in their districts on August recess, leaving the administration scrambling to arrange a conference call with Congressional leaders using classified phone lines, sources told NBC News.
The administration reacted to the U.K. vote with a statement that “President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States. He believes that there are core interests at stake…and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”
Republicans appear to be dragging their feet. In a letter sent to President Obama Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner asked the president to “make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy,”
Boehner added: “In addition, it is essential you address on what basis any use of force would be legally justified and how the justification comports with the exclusive authority of Congressional authorization under Article I of the Constitution.”
And a letter signed by 98 House Republicans and 18 Democrats warned Obama that “engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior Congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
The letter, circulated by Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, said lawmakers “stand ready to come back into session, consider the facts before us, and share the burden of decisions made regarding U.S. involvement in the quickly escalating Syrian conflict.” But it offered no sign that they planned to do so.
The hands-off approach could allow the GOP to exploit the issue for political gain. With Americans wary of another military intervention in the Middle East, Republicans are eager to distance themselves from any decision to go to war. And insisting that Obama get congressional authorization helps further the notion of an out-of-control executive that much of the conservative movement has bought into lately. At the same time, some Republicans like Sen. John McCain are urging Obama to respond, and look ready to criticize him for not doing enough.
Either way, it’s clear that Congress isn’t going to provide us with an honest and reasoned debate over the pros and cons of launching airstrikes, despite the enormous significance and complexity of the issue.
This story was updated at 6:00 p.m.