American journalists of an Anglophilic bent often complain that debates in Britain's House of Commons put those in the U.S. Congress to shame. Actually, the Commons often showcases its own form of superficiality, as in the Kabuki theater of Prime Minister's Question Time. But Thursday’s Commons debate over a possible attack on Syria was admirably substantive.
Prime Minister David Cameron offered a crisp and nuanced defense of military action, acknowledging that, although there was strong evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, he couldn’t point to a “one smoking piece of intelligence.”
Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, who forced Cameron to delay a final vote on military action, was less impressive but drove home the point that a decision should await a report by U.N. weapons inspectors. “Evidence should precede decision, he said, “not decision precede evidence.” (Of course, the inspectors are not expected to say who ordered the use of chemical weapons, only whether they were used.)
Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when Jack Straw, the former Labor Party foreign secretary, acknowledged that Tony Blair led Britain into war in Iraq based on flawed intelligence. “I know how easy it is to get into military action, and how difficult it is to get out of it,” Straw said.
How did the debate in Congress on military action in Syria compare to the one in the Commons? We can’t say -- because there hasn’t been a debate in Congress. The House and Senate are in recess, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday rebuffed a reporter’s suggestion that Obama should follow Cameron’s example and summon them back into session. “Obviously, this is a different country with a different form of government,” Carney said.
Well, yes, but the Constitution entrusts Congress with the decision to declare war. Despite calls from 116 members of the House for a vote in Congress on an attack, it looks as if congressional leaders will be content with being “consulted” by the administration. (Thursday night, party leaders and committee chairs will be briefed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and senior White House officials.)
A debate on Syria in Congress might or might not be as memorable as the one in Paliament, but it's worth having.
[Update, 4:02 p.m., August 29: A sharply divided British Parliament on Thursday rejected the immediate use of force as a response to suspected chemical attacks in Syria.]
This post originally misstated the first name of Labor Party leader Ed Miliband.