There’s been a widespread assumption in the media that if Congress does not approve of the force authorization in Syria, it will be a major embarrassment for President Obama. The New York Times called it “one of the riskiest gambles of his presidency.” A McClatchy article on the topic was titled “Obama risks embarrassing loss in Congress.” The Financial Times published a piece titled “Barack Obama risks more than just his credibility on Syria.” It’s easy to find more examples.
But this line of thinking is not just dead wrong, it’s also damaging to our democracy.
President Obama and future presidents should not think that consulting Congress is a risky proposition. They should not think that a defeat in Congress would be a huge embarrassment to their administration. It’s vital that the executive branch consult with the legislative branch before going to war. That’s how democracy works. It’s a system of checks and balances.
And contrary to President Obama’s comments, that system of checks and balances extends to war-making authority as well. Obama is wrong when he says he has the unilateral authority to strike Syria. We’ve grown accustomed to presidents seizing that power, but the fact of the matter is that except under extreme circumstances where the national security of the United States is at risk, only Congress has the power to declare war. This isn’t an extreme circumstance. President Obama is following the Constitution by asking Congress for approval.
That’s what makes articles like the ones I listed above so dangerous. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy. A defeat in Congress is only embarrassing for the President, because the media has framed it that way. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf had an excellent post yesterday that outlined how perverse this thinking is:
If you’re someone who personalizes politics, fetishizes disagreement, and intends to treat a Congressional rejection of a strike on Syria as a “humiliation” for Obama, the Times frame makes some sense, but make no mistake: Its assessment of the Syria debate’s impact is self-fulfilling prophecy from an insular, status-obsessed elite. Obama’s approach is “a gamble” because and only because other insiders imagine that a president being denied by Congress — gasp! — is embarrassing, rather than a healthy manifestation of Madisonian checks.
The executive is more prone to war than the legislature or the people. This was foreseen.
This is even more dangerous, because it sends a message to future presidents that consulting with Congress (and abiding by the Constitution) is a major risk that can derail an entire presidency. We don’t know how the current vote will turn out, but if Congress does not pass the resolution and the media treats it as a massive disgrace to the President, it will be a grave disservice to our country. Hopefully, future administrations will follow the Constitution and consult Congress. But the past couple of Presidents have demonstrated that they don’t always think they need Congress’s approval to wage war. Will a future President ever go to Congress again if he (or she) knows that rejection will be a black mark on his (or her) presidency and derail his (or her) entire agenda?
If Congress rejects the authorization, we should treat it as a victory for democracy, not a failure of the presidency. That would signal to future presidents that asking Congress for permission to wage war is not a major gamble. Framing it otherwise only incentivizes them to find a way around the system of checks and balances.
Is that really the framework the media intends to promote? I hope not.