Obama seeks congressional authorization for Syrian intervention

With unilateral intervention in Syria seemingly just hours away, President Obama stunned a vacationing nation over the Labor Day weekend by announcing he had decided to obey the Constitution and seek congressional authorization instead.  This led to some amusingly convoluted editorials praising Obama’s decision as “historic,” such as a Yahoo News post from Walter Shapiro, who somehow completely forgets to mention George Bush going to Congress before the invasion of Iraq… even though half of his column is a rundown of post-WW2 presidents “eviscerating” the war-making powers of Congress.

(He also calls Ronald Reagan’s rationale for dispatching Marines into Grenada “preposterous” because Reagan said he was “protecting endangered American medical students.”  Protecting the lives of imperiled American citizens isn’t a good reason for an emergency military deployment?  Or is he saying he doesn’t think there actually were any American students on Grenada?  Was there anything else threatening to American interests going on in Grenada at the time?  You’ll notice Team Obama didn’t try to cite the Grenada operation as a precedent for what they want to do in Syria.  That’s partially due to partisan arrogance, but also because they know the comparison would make them look foolish.)

At any rate, Shapiro observes that Obama didn’t even have the “fig-leaf justifications” for intervention that his predecessors employed, and speculates on some political realities that might have influenced his decision to get Congress involved:

The full reasoning behind the president???s turnabout remains murky. He may have wanted to share responsibility for a risky strategy to punish the barbarous regime of Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. Obama may have recognized the political dangers of attacking another Middle Eastern country without popular support at home.

And the president, a former part-time constitutional law professor, may have also belatedly recalled the wording of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution that grants Congress the sole power ???to declare war.???

Was that last comment meant as sarcasm, or has the bar for Barack Obama been lowered so far that people seriously think he might have forgotten what the Constitution says about war powers, until this weekend?

A Politico article on Obama’s disastrous second term also floats the “shared blame” theory of seeking Congressional approval for Syria:

In Washington and around the world, both friends and foes can easily read [Obama’s] doubts about his own Syria policy and witness his agonizing over the use of military force in real time. His decision over the Labor Day weekend to seek congressional approval for a limited military strike on Syria came after administration officials earlier signaled that reprisals for use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad???s regime were imminent, perhaps just hours away. On Capitol Hill, the delay is being interpreted in both parties, not as evidence of a principled belief in constitutional authority, but as Obama???s attempt to share ownership if his Syria decisions go awry.

Although it’s not mentioned by these analysts, I believe the British backing away from Syria was also a major factor in driving Obama to Congress.  The world watched our friends in the UK obey their own separation-of-powers rules, and a disappointed Prime Minister David Cameron demonstrate his faith in the system by accepting the results.  The contrast between that and Obama rushing headlong into war without a Congressional vote was profoundly embarrassing for the President.

The conventional wisdom about Obama looking to share the blame for a Syrian disaster also seems to ignore what happened in Libya, a 100 percent Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton disaster that neither of them seems to be suffering politically for.  Why should the President who ice-skated out of a bloody debacle in Benghazi be worried about taking a lot of “blame” for a zero-footprint standoff weapons attack on some empty Syrian buildings and helicopters?  Is the White House sitting on some worst-case-scenario projections that it hasn’t seen fit to share with the rest of us?

Also, we know this White House can read polls, and the polls have been showing little enthusiasm for either Syrian intervention, or the Obama presidency in general.  Obama just isn’t politically strong enough to drag the nation into a war all by himself.  On the other hand, if he’s got Congress weighing the pros and cons of military action, he’s also draining political energy away from the upcoming budget battle.  It’s tough for Republicans to talk about spending cuts and fiscal restraint with a war on the horizon.

At this point, there was no domestic political down side to the White House for sending the Syrian question to Congress; Obama knows full well that his loyal media would not spend a lot of time criticizing him for looking weak and indecisive.  On the contrary, as we’ve seen, they’re busy cranking out editorials about his historic leadership in respecting the war powers of the legislative branch.

Fox News gives us a look at today’s Congressional activity:

President Obama’s national security team prepared to make its case to Congress on Tuesday for a military strike on Syria, as the president continued to woo powerful lawmakers to help in his effort to win congressional support for an attack.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will conduct the first hearing on the proposed Syria strike on Tuesday afternoon. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify. On Tuesday morning, the president and Vice President Biden will host leaders of key congressional committees in the Cabinet Room of the White House. 

Ahead of the hearing, Obama also met Sunday with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been an ally in recent debates over immigration and other issues, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The president faces an uphill climb in winning the congressional support he now says he will court. McCain, though, voiced cautious optimism as he spoke in favor of a strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the administration says ordered an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 of his own people.

McCain emerged from the roughly one-hour meeting saying that Congress voting against a strike would ???undermine the credibility of the president of the United States and America. ??? But we have a long way to go.???

Maintaining the “credibility” of the President, and by extension America, is a lousy reason to start a war, although it’s the sort of argument that gets Beltway heads bobbing in approval.  Who put our credibility on the line with all that bluster about chemical weapons “red lines” in the first place?  Furthermore, Obama’s declared plans for the Syrian strike seem like the kind of action that would dangerously reduce our credibility: an ineffectual punitive bombing announced, and practically scheduled, in advance, with the stated goal of being just muscular enough to avoid mockery, as one Administration official put it.  What message does that send to prospective war criminals around the globe?  Drop gas on your people, and you risk losing a couple of buildings?  Particularly after all of America’s allies had backed away from the mission, for Obama to undertake an ineffective unilateral, unconstitutional attack might have generated a few days of fawning praise for his tough-guy theatrics in domestic media, but it would have made him look ridiculous in the long run.

On the other hand, a more intensive bombing campaign would risk American casualties, horrendous collateral damage, and handing the country over to al-Qaeda, the most effective force doing battle with the regime.  (Does anyone seriously doubt the terrorist forces would have little difficulty routing the opposition and taking control of a post-Assad Syria?)  Assad has been cagey about playing up this threat, telling the French newspaper Le Figaro this weekend that “Eighty to ninety percent of those we are fighting belong to al-Qaeda.  They are not interested in reform or in politics.  The only way to deal with them is to annihilate them.”  He’s overstating the percentage of rebel forces fighting under the black flag of global terrorism, but not by all that much, particularly when combat power and sympathy among the anti-Assad population is taken into account.

Overthrowing Assad and booting al-Qaeda out of the country would take a massive American ground invasion, something Americans clearly are not in the mood for.  Also, if we’re busy reconstructing Syria, we won’t have resources available to deal with other situations that more directly threaten American security, which would send precisely the wrong message to the world’s other Bad Actors.

What will Congress say about Syrian intervention?  I’ve seen a few news reports hail Obama’s political skill for bringing his old Presidential rival John McCain on board.  That’s silly – McCain and Lindsey Graham have been more eager to hit Syria than Obama is, for a long time.  Radio host Hugh Hewitt thinks the GOP caucus “will support POTUS by a significant margin,” including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  On the other hand, Byron York writes of some significant roadblocks the President will face in Congress, at least for the current version of his Syrian war resolution, which York believes is much too broad to win Republican approval.

York suggests that many Republicans will respond to Senator McCain’s argument that “rejecting Obama could permanently weaken the presidency,” but I suspect that some will think it’s a good idea to weaken the overbearing imperial executive position Obama has created.  Besides, if the process of seeking Congressional authorization for war was meant to be anything other than a rubber stamp from compliant legislators, as a symbolic display of national unity, then the President’s unilateral war-making powers have been pretty weak for a very long time.

A robust congressional debate will more fully involve the American people, clarify the objective of a military operation, help us assess the human and material resources necessary to handle the initial plan plus various contingencies, and put the evidence of Bashar Assad’s culpability for WMD deployment before more critical eyes.  Those are all very desirable outcomes.  But the debate can only be “robust” if there’s a realistic chance Congress will say “no.”

Update: The quest for congressional authorization is off to a good start, as both House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) have announced they will support the use of military force in Syria.  “I’m going to support the President’s call for action, and I believe my colleagues should,” said Boehner.

“America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States,” added Cantor.