There is little reason to believe that President Obama’s decision to ask Congress for authorization to engage in military action in Syria is the result of a newfound fastidiousness when it comes to the Constitution and his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
On the 2007 campaign trail, candidate Obama regularly blasted the Bush administration over its supposed “imperial presidency” pretensions and argued that a “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 his own record shows a president ignoring laws when he finds them inconvenient, using administrative procedures to bypass Congress to create expansive new statutory regimes, and flouting an explicit provision in the Constitution regarding recess appointments. And perhaps most Orwellian of all, Obama turned the language of the War Powers Act on its head during the 2011 Libyan intervention by arguing that the six months of aerial and cruise missile strikes by American naval and air forces did not constitute actual “hostilities” and, hence, did not require any action by Congress.
It appears that for the former law school professor the “living Constitution” is indeed a living thing—living day to day, that is. Not surprisingly, then, the president’s decision to go to Congress is seen by more than a few as a cynical ploy in which the president, already reluctant to take any action at all, is hoping an even more reluctant Congress will actually vote against a resolution to use force.
Whether that cynicism is warranted, or even whether President Obama himself fully understands the consequences of his decision to seek an authorization from Congress, it is a huge roll of the dice for his presidency. A failure to win a congressional authorization—when combined with existing scandals, the mess of Obamacare, and the country’s general economic malaise—is likely to cement even further his lame duck status and leave the United States with a president whose credibility with allies and enemies alike is at rock bottom.
Although Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor now support military action, other Republicans may be tempted to use this as a political opportunity. After all, this is a president who has used the bully pulpit to be a partisan bully as much as any president in recent history. But Republicans should remember that this is an office they will one day inherit, and the hole they dig now for Obama and the country’s strategic credibility will be a hole they might well be trying to climb out of in just a few years.
There are conservatives who believe the president does not have a constitutional obligation to seek a congressional okay when it comes to striking Syria, and there are conservatives who believe that he does. Regardless, that bridge has been crossed, and the question now is whether Congress will act as the world’s most important deliberative body, which it claims to be, or the fractious, ineffective herd of 535 that the public has come to see it as.
As with most things offered up by the administration in the area of national security, the draft resolution was a mishmash of tactics and strategy and needed improving. Having delayed a military strike this long, and eliminated any chance of surprise, it is militarily impossible for a punishing, deterring blow against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons to be on the order of Obama’s initial minimalist “shot across the bow.” Congress must insist that any military campaign not be feckless, and that it be properly funded so as not to further hollow out an already sequestered-to-death military.
Such a campaign, if not so limited as to be pointless, will inevitably reduce the Assad regime’s capacity against Syria’s rebels. On this point, Senator John McCain, along with his colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee who voted for an amended resolution on Wednesday, deserve high praise for understanding that fact and making it “the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria” and, in turn, urging the development of “a comprehensive U.S. strategy” to assist the “vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces” by providing lethal and nonlethal capabilities.
Moreover, none of this requires boots on the ground. Skepticism about the feasibility of an effective Syrian campaign reflects not an actual lack of American capacity, but rather self-inflicted doubts from pulling the plug on our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan prematurely. Non-jihadist opposition forces do exist and they do hold significant swaths of Syria. However, they will certainly fall by the wayside in the face of resolute and ruthless al Qaeda-aligned forces if not properly trained, armed, and guided.
No doubt, there are conservatives who, like the president, want simply to pivot away from the Middle East altogether and believe that’s what the public wants as well. But what the public wants today and what it sees as important down the road will almost certainly not be the same. In 1999, John McCain went against the majority of his congressional GOP colleagues, supported a military intervention in Kosovo, and stole a march on his nomination opponents in appearing more presidential. He was joined by then-governor George W. Bush in support of the intervention, and soon enough the polls showed a majority of Americans in agreement.
On the other side of the coin, another senator with presidential aspirations, the relatively hawkish Democrat Sam Nunn, voted in 1991 against the congressional authorization for the first Gulf war and now admits it was the greatest mistake of his career.
In short, conservatives, especially those thinking that they could be sitting in the Oval Office one day, ought to think long and hard before they reject a sensible, if not perfect, authorization for the use of force.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.