Obama Should Not Be Embarrassed if the Syria Resolution Fails

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.

Does Obama Really Want to Attack Syria?

Wonkbook hypothesized today that the answer is no. It may sound a bit crazy, given how strongly Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have spoken in favor of a strike, but it’s not as unrealistic as it sounds:

Boxed in by red-line rhetoric and the Sunday show warriors, the Obama administration needed to somehow mobilize the opposition to war in Syria. It did that by “fumbling” the roll-out terribly.

The arguments were lengthy and unclear. The White House expressly admitted that their strikes wouldn’t save Syrian lives or topple Assad or making anything better in any way, and they were instead asking Americans to bomb Syria in order to enforce abstract international norms of warfare.

But then Obama turned on a dime and decided to go to Congress at the last minute, making his administration look indecisive and fearful of shouldering the blame for this unpopular intervention, putting the decision in the hands of a body famous for being unable to make decisions, giving the argument for strikes more time to lose support, and giving an American public that opposes intervention in Syria more time and venues to be heard.

Ezra Klein, the author of Wonkbook, goes on to note that the Administration asked for an incredibly broad authorization for the use of force and that Kerry also fumbled questions about the potential for troops on the ground in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Add everything up and the President has done an awful lot wrong if he’s trying to convince the country to go to war.

So, is it possible that underneath all the rhetoric, President Obama actually doesn’t want us to strike Syria? It’s a surprisingly real possibility.

The President has pushed off an attack for months now, even after reports confirmed that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons previously. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) in April, the White House Director for Legislative Affairs, Michelle Rodriguez, wrote that U.S. intelligence agencies “assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” The Administration wanted to investigate further, but once again reiterated that the use of chemical weapons was a red line.

Then, nothing happened. The international community continued to investigate, but no one called for a strike. Assad had already crossed the President’s red line when he gassed his own people again on August 20th.  At this point though, Obama could no longer ignore Assad’s transgressions. He had crossed the red line yet again and this time the U.S. had to react.

But how? A full-fledged toppling of the Assad regime would lead to a vacuum in the region that could easily be filled by Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. The U.S. certainly did not want that. It also did not want troops on the ground. Shooting off a couple of cruise missiles would only marginally damage the Assad regime while potentially destabilizing the region even more. The President may have examined the situation and realized that the best option for the U.S. was to do nothing. But he had drawn a red line. He couldn’t ignore the chemical weapon attack now.

But Congress can.

That’s why the President may have punted the decision and fumbled the roll out of the strike. He knew that it would be a tough sell in the House (less so in the Senate) and that the public would be against it. In addition, he’s following the letter of the law – something that would appease his opponents who are increasingly calling for his impeachment. The final question was how the U.S.’s credibility would look if he gave the decision to Congress and the legislative branch decided not to act. It wouldn’t be great – the U.S. would have allowed Assad to use chemical weapons on his own people without punishment. But it wouldn’t hurt the U.S.’s credibility much. It wouldn’t change Iran’s calculations about building a nuclear bomb – think Congress would vote against a strike on Iran if it developed nuclear capabilities? Of course not. It may not deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future – but at least Assad would hear the President of the United States saying both that the U.S. must respond to the chemical weapon attack and that he has the power to take unilateral action. Congress’s inaction won’t deter Assad, but the President’s statements may at least give him pause that Obama will take unilateral action if Assad uses chemical weapons again.

Overall, the President retains U.S. credibility while not entering into a civil war that could easily escalate. He “enforces” his red line without actually enforcing it and that’s actually exactly what the American people want.

2016 Republican Hopefuls Must Show Their True Stripes

I said I wasn’t going to post on Syria today, but I couldn’t help myself. This is just a quick one on the politics of it.

Matt Lewis has a smart post today noting that Rand Paul benefits the most from a vote on a strike on Syria. After all, the junior senator from Kentucky has already declared himself as an anti-interventionist (or, not pro-interventionist) and he can simply continue to lead that group. For others though, this vote will force them to choose sides. The New York Times‘s Jonathan Martin notes the difficulty of the situation:

But the Syria measure also has important implications for the 2016 Republican presidential contest. White House hopefuls in Congress will be forced to choose between the wishes of Tea Party activists opposed to a strike and the wishes of more traditional Republicans, whose ranks include some major donors and Israel supporters with whom presidential candidates typically align themselves.

And as the hawks are aware, a “yea” vote on taking action in Syria would put potential opponents of Mr. Paul, like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Mr. Cruz, on the same side as Mr. Obama.

This is a serious topic obviously and has grave implications for the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. But, it’s also one of the first legislative battles in a while that forces Congressmen to do more than just stick to their side. It’s not President Obama vs. Speaker Boehner. It’s not Senate Democrats vs. Senate Republicans. For once, the entire focus is on doing what is best for the country. Of course, it’d be better if Assad never used chemical weapons and we didn’t have to debate whether to go to war with him. But it also would’ve been nice to not have to debate raising the debt ceiling or sequestration. In the midst of those crises though, partisan politics prevailed. This one is different.

It’s about time that Rubio, Cruz and other 2016 hopefuls had to support a policy on its merits, instead of for political reasons. Rubio deserves credit for sticking with immigration reform and pushing for its passage, but he also walked a tight line the entire time, worried about how his support for the bill would play with the Tea Party. As for Cruz, he’s spent his first nine months in Congress opposing everything the President has done. That’s it. It’s time that he had to face tough questions and do more than repeat the angry Tea Party talking points. The politics of voting for or against a Syrian strike are very unclear. That means that everyone in Congress will get to look at the entire situation and decide based on pure policy grounds what they believe is the best strategy going forward. Politics, for once, will be almost entirely absent from the conversation. It’s about time Congressmen voted for what was in the best interests of America, instead of their own.