President Obama was right to go to Congress. That's true even if Congress deals the administration a stunning defeat and votes against authorizing strikes on Syria.
In fact, it's especially true if Congress votes against authorizing strikes on Syria.
The White House's decision to ask Congress for permission to strike Syria is being covered as a political story. If Congress backs the resolution, then that's a "win" for Obama. If they rebuff the administration, that's a loss -- and it makes Obama look like a lame duck.
All that's probably true in terms of political narrative. But who wins three days of Washington's inane political narrative sweepstakes is an appalling way to judge matters of war and peace. Losing the vote would prove that Obama was right to hold it in the first place. For reasons both democratic and pragmatic, it's unwise for the president to launch wars of choice that the public overwhelmingly opposes.
But we'll get to that in a second. First, let's look closely at what will happen to the rest of Obama's agenda if he loses the Syria vote. Will House Republicans spy weakness and stop working with Obama on immigration, gun control and health reform?
Will they threaten to breach the debt ceiling unless the White House offers implausible policy concessions?
Will liberal Democrats begin to mobilize against Obama's preferred choice for Federal Reserve Chairman?
Well, you see, the funny thing about that is...
There's no peaceful, productive relationship with Congress for this vote to disrupt. The White House can't get anything past House Republicans now. Neither a "yes" nor a "no" vote on Syria won't change that. The downstream consequences of a congressional rebuff are, effectively, zero. It's a few bad news cycles, and then all Washington will be talking about is the October debt limit.
What would change Obama's presidency is a disastrous intervention in Syria. Imagine a series of American strikes, followed by either another gas attack by Assad, or some kind of terrorist reprisal by Hezbollah, or both. All of a sudden the administration either needs to become a full participant in the Syrian civil war or retreat and take the blame for all that happens in their wake.
Indeed, a lengthy involvement in Syria could harm the White House's other priorities. As Matt Yglesias at Slate notes, it's going to be a lot harder for the White House to hold the line against the GOP's attempts to cancel sequestration's defense cuts (and only the defense cuts) when the military is actually dropping bombs in a foreign land.
All that said, no one in Congress believes the Obama administration's more high-minded explanations for why they executed an 11th-hour turn and decided to ask for legislative backing. This isn't about the War Powers Act, but the low-minded explanation doesn't get nearly enough credit.
Let's say all the White House wanted to do was figure out whether Congress was sufficiently committed to the mission and comfortable with the politics to share the blame and stay the course if things went wrong. That is an excellent reason to go to Congress. Given the absence of serious international backing, it would be unwise to strike if Congress isn't willing to sign on, too.
And that's why, in the longer view, a "no" vote on Syria is actually good for the president -- or, at the least, it's a lot better than a world in which Obama struck Syria without going to Congress. If support for intervening in Syria is truly so shallow that the administration can't even win authorization for limited air strikes, then going into Syria is a bad idea. That's information that's important for the White House to know before it scrambles the jets rather than after. A few days of bad press coverage is a lot better than a few years of a bad war.