Obama’s Syria choice: Good for politics, good for the constitution, bad for Syria

August 31, 2013

There seem to be three pieces of emerging consensus on President Obama's decision to seek approval from Congress before committing to his desired plan of off-shore, limited strikes against Syria to punish its government for allegedly deploying chemical weapons against its own people:

1. It's good politics

Colleague Neil Irwin describes the move as a "bold — and risky — gambit" to force Congress to "put up or shut up." Legislators can no longer simply critique Obama from the sidelines and must now play a role in the decision-making process, which by the way is so terrifyingly difficult that BuzzFeed's Ben Smith says it could deepen the ideological wedge within the Republican party. It inoculates the White House a bit and alleviates what has been a politically unwinnable problem.

2. It's good, maybe great, for the U.S. Constitution

A problem that critics often describe as "the imperial presidency " – the enormous growth, since September 2001, of the executive branch's ability to unilaterally conduct foreign policy and pursue aggressive national security policies – just took a big symbolic blow. Obama, by deferring to Congress even though he probably doesn't have to, may have just undercut some of those "imperial presidency" practices – which he himself had previously used extensively, for example with drone campaigns and with the 2011 strikes on Libya.

Harvard Law School Prof. Jack Goldsmith, who has not been shy about criticizing Obama on such grounds, had just run a New York Times op-ed column sharply criticizing Obama for what many assumed would be unilateral strikes on Syria without congressional approval. After the speech, Goldsmith praised Obama on his blog for the move to defer to Congress, calling it a "big risk" but saying that Obama would be "incomparably strengthened, legally and especially politically."

3. Not great news for Syria

This detail is telling: According to the Associated Press, Obama had decided to launch strikes without congressional approval. But he changed his mind at the last moment and said he wanted to get Congress' support – overruling every single one of his top national security advisors, who apparently counseled against it.

The U.S. Congress is not known for its speed with urgent issues – particularly ones that come during their vacation. It is also not an institution known for compromise or cooperation on issues that are, like this one, daunting, difficult and that have few political upsides. Whether or not you think that off-shore strikes are a good idea, this adds more delays and uncertainty after a week of both. It increases the likelihood, probably already significant, that the Assad regime will see the international community as unable or unwilling to hold him accountable. If strikes are likely to happen anyway, the uncertainty is not good for Syria. And if they don't happen, Syria would have likely been better off if the U.S. had never signaled otherwise in the first place.

Colleagues Liz Sly and Ahmed Ramadan report from Beirut that many Syrians who oppose Assad worry that the combination of telegraphing strikes but then backing off will send Assad the message that he can use chemical weapons with far less fear of reprisal than he may have previously felt. It also risks sending the message that Assad will have plenty of  warning before any strikes, for example to relocate valuable military equipment such as scud missiles or to prepare to absorb the blow.

Any or all of these views could turn out to be wrong, of course, but it seems to be where many observers are landing. If they're correct, this formulation would say much about Obama's priorities on dealing with Syria, or at least where he believes he can and cannot make a difference.

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Max Fisher · August 31, 2013