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.
What We're Following See More »
Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.
Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."
In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-expected primary battle behind her, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) is no longer going on the air in upcoming primary states. “Team Clinton hasn’t spent a single cent in … California, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “campaign has spent a little more than $1 million in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone backer in the Senate, said the candidate should end his presidential campaign if he’s losing to Hillary Clinton after the primary season concludes in June, breaking sharply with the candidate who is vowing to take his insurgent bid to the party convention in Philadelphia.”
The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."