In seeking congressional authorization for military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, President Obama is not weakening presidential power and is not looking for an out to avoid a war he doesn’t want. He is doing what is absolutely necessary in a democratic republic. He is rallying consent for a grave step and for what was always going to be a controversial decision.
True, Congress might vote no. If that happens, it is impossible to see how the president could then pursue an attack, even if he believes it necessary for national security. This is a risk, and a potential contradiction. It’s why Secretary of State John Kerry, a powerful advocate for Obama’s course, necessarily dodged questions on the Sunday talk shows about what the administration would do in the event of a negative congressional verdict. Obama simply has to assume it will win.
Congressional support is important for another reason: The policy Obama proposes is intended to do severe damage to Assad’s armed forces — from what I am gathering, no one in the administration is contemplating “pinpricks” or harmlessly tossing cruise missiles into lakes and fields – but also seeks to send a “message.” Using an act of war for “messaging” purposes is always vexed, but the message itself will be far more powerful if the President acts with Congress behind him. Were the president to act alone and then face an uproar in Congress, what would this do to American credibility and the world’s sense of our resolve?
Gaining democratic consent is especially important for an action that has very large long-term implications and clearly divides the country. Yes, the president did not seek congressional backing for his Libya policy. But in Libya, the United States was acting in support of allies. “Leading from behind” was a controversial phrase, but it did convey correctly that the United States was not acting alone or even as the lead power. In this instance, the United States is the main driver of the policy, and support from allies may be limited to France and a few other nations. A congressional stamp of approval would give the action the constitutional and global legitimacy it would lack if it were the decision of only one person. The delay created by seeking congressional support has the additional benefit of giving Obama more time to rally support around the world.
Nothing about this request will prevent Obama or future presidents from acting in an emergency and going to Congress later. But this is not an emergency. It is, however, important, and I wish Congress would call off its holiday and return to work, with the rest of the country, on Tuesday. If war isn’t a big enough deal to force Congress to shorten a recess, what is? The Senate seems to be moving in that direction. The House should, too.
Lastly — and, yes, this may seem wildly hopeful — a congressional debate of something this serious could be ennobling, whether the authorization wins or loses. Right from the start, the debate will not be purely partisan. Democrats are split, and so are Republicans.
Among progressives and liberals, there is a conflict over which historical metaphors are most informative. Those who see an attack on Syria as akin to Iraq or Vietnam have already started rallying in opposition. Those who see it as closer to our response in Bosnia and Kosovo (and our non-intervention in Rwanda) are more inclined to support the president. My hunch is that the president will rally enough Democrats to prevail, which is why I agree with the prediction of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Sunday on “Meet the Press” that the authorization will pass.
But this will be an even bigger test for Republicans, many of whom questioned the patriotism of Democrats who did not support President Bush during the Iraq war. There is also a genuinely anti-interventionist spirit within the libertarian wing of the party that was largely suppressed during the Iraq conflict and has come back to life under Obama. This view is represented most forcefully by Sen. Rand Paul, and it needs to be heard.
If this debate is carried out in good faith, as was the debate before the first Gulf War under President George H. W. Bush, it will strengthen the country. We often forget that the votes in the House and Senate over our response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait were closely divided. Yet the nation was more united because Americans knew their views had been forcefully represented in Congress. If, on the other hand, this Syrian debate is used by a significant number of Republicans for the main purpose of undermining Obama, the rest of the world will know how degraded our democracy has become. Call me naive, but I honestly think that most Republicans do not want this to happen and will rise to the seriousness of the moment, whatever their views.
Reluctantly, I think the president is right to strike against Assad. It’s widely said that Obama’s own words declaring a red line have boxed him in and that he has no choice but to act. That’s true, but insufficient. Obama spoke those words precisely because the use of chemical weapons risks, as he put it on Saturday, “making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons” and “could lead to escalating [their] use.” He had hoped that his words would be enough to deter Assad. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true.
I use that word “reluctantly” because, like so many who believe the Iraq war was a terrible mistake, I am wary of military intervention in the Middle East. But because of what Obama said and, more important, why he said it, I think we have to act in Syria.