President Obama said Saturday he’ll go to Congress for approval before launching a strike against Syria, but he also made it clear that he doesn’t believe he needs anyone else’s permission.
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger … and our actions will be even more effective” if the strike is authorized by Congress, Obama said Saturday in a televised address from the Rose Garden.
So why is Obama asking for authority he already believes he has?
It’s hardly a decision without downsides. By going to Congress, Obama is agreeing to wait for days — and possibly weeks — for legislators to reconvene and vote. And, should Congress deny his request, Obama will face similar embarrassment to what United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron faced after Parliament rejected his request to use force in Syria.
The military benefits are also difficult to discern, as it’s questionable that a strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be any more effective because it comes with Congress approval. And to the Syrian soldiers and civilians that bear the brunt of the attacks, the approval of a far-off Congress is utterly irrelevant.
But by asking permission, Obama is throwing a bone to a constitutional camp he once championed but with whom he has since fallen far out of favor. And — whether he intended to or not — the president just extracted himself from a politically perilous position and pushed his political adverseries into a no-win situation.
The situation in Syria sent Obama into a legal question as old as the Constitution itself: When it comes to making war, can the president go it alone, or does he need Congress to open the gate?
Nearly all sides agree that the president has the authority to defend the country from a direct attack, but no such consensus exists on offensive military actions, says James Lindsey, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And Obama himself seems to have taken a range of different views. Proponent of Congressional authority cheered candidate Obama in 2007 when he told the Boston Globe:
“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
But that same camp has been disappointed since, both by the Obama’s 2011 decision to authorize missile strikes in Libya without congressional approval, as well as his administration’s extensive use of drone strikes against al-Qaida operatives — none of which were specifically authorized by an act of Congress.
Saturday, Obama split the difference, claiming authority to go it alone, but saying it strengthened the nation’s democracy to make the decision in concert with Congress.
“I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Obama said in his Rose Garden address.
But while Obama is playing-up the Democratic virtues of his decision, he’s quietly reaping some political perks.
Syria is no longer just Obama’s problem, as now that Congress has a hand in the decision-making, it will also suffer a share of the political consequences. And given that there are no easy answers in Syria, that’s a burden the president is happy to share.
Congressional Republicans now face a difficult decision: If they successfully lead a charge to vote down the missile strikes, it will deliver a high-profile rebuke to the president’s foreign policy. But it will also leave them looking soft on a dictator who used sarin gas on his own people, or even provide fodder for Obama to accuse them of using foreign policy for domestic political gain.
But if Republicans provide the votes needed to approve military strikes and Syria, they will be wedded to the consequences.
It’s impossible to divine what role the political calculus played in the president’s decision, but the reality is inescapable: On Friday, Obama faced a no-win decision in Syria. After Saturday, he won’t be facing it alone.
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