Member of Congress berates Obama for consulting Congress on Syria

August 31, 2013

A man walks in front of a burning building after a Syrian Air force air strike in Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files)

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) issued quite a response to President Obama's announcement on Saturday that he would seek congressional approval for limited military strikes against Syria. Here it is, in full:

President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents. The President does not need Congress to authorize a strike on Syria. If [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians deserves a military response, and I believe it does, and if the President is seeking congressional approval, then he should call Congress back into a special session at the earliest date. The President doesn't need 535 Members of Congress to enforce his own redline.

There are a few different ways to read this. King's surface meaning would appear to be an argument about separation of powers, although one that oddly downplays the power and role of his own legislative branch pretty significantly. That's not something politicians often do.

But King, here, is going beyond saying that Obama doesn't need to consult Congress. He's saying that Obama actually shouldn't consult Congress. Maybe he's thinking about military tactic and worries that any more delays on U.S. strikes will lessen their ability to harm the Assad regime, although after a week of back-and-forth it's reasonable to conclude that Assad is probably as ready as he's going to be.

It's difficult to escape the sense that King, and perhaps other members of Congress who have demurred from calling for Obama to seek their approval, just might not want to have make this call.

The decision about whether or not to launch limited, offshore strikes against Syria is really difficult and complicated with strong pros and cons. It's risky, although so is inaction. And beyond just the debate on offshore strikes, most people agree there are no good options; whatever we do or don't do, the killing is going to continue and it's going to stay very bad.

Sure, the United States might be able to improve things a little around the margins. But it can mostly just watch helplessly. There's not much of a voter constituency for marginally improving a far-away civil war. And anyone who plays some role in U.S. policy toward Syria can look forward to being blamed by some future opponent for failing to solve it.

An elected official might reasonably conclude that he or she has very little or nothing to gain by taking even a small amount of ownership over U.S. policy toward Syria, but has a lot to lose. Of course, a number of them surely care about it as human beings, and some are probably eager to engage with the issues regarding separation of powers. But members of Congress are also political animals, and Syria is, for them, a giant bear trap.

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Max Fisher | August 31, 2013