Obama Says He Doesn’t Need Congress’ Permission to Strike Syria, So Why is He Asking for It?

The president is touting the decision as a win for democracy, but there’s a political payoff as well.

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. Obama said he has decided that the United States should take military action against Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack, and said he will seek congressional authorization for the use of force. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
National Journal
Patrick Reis
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Patrick Reis
Aug. 31, 2013, 2:19 p.m.

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 Law

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.

The Polit­ics

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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