Will Obama Strike Syria Without Congressional Approval?

President Obama was repeatedly asked at his press conference in Russia today about whether he would still attack Syria if Congress votes down the force authorization. Obama has said a number of times that he has the constitutional authority to do so, but hasn’t answered whether or not he will take that action. On Twitter, Talk Points Memo’s Sahil Kapur said that he can’t answer that question, “because it undercuts his effort to build support.” But that only happens if Obama is determined to go ahead with the strikes without Congressional approval.

Think about it for a second. If Obama comes out and declares that he will not strike Syria if Congress doesn’t approve the resolution, what does that change? It puts more pressure on lawmakers to vote for authorization as they can no longer convince themselves that Obama will act anyways. For a Congressman who wants to vote yes, but won’t do so both for political reasons and because he believes Obama will act unilaterally, this could change his vote. On the other hand, revealing that he won’t act without Congressional approval will not make any Congressmen more likely to vote against the resolution.

The only reason I can see for the President to keep his intentions hidden is if he is willing to go ahead without authorization or has not made up his mind yet. The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan explained this well:

Here’s the issue: If Obama says whether or not he would proceed with an attack after a failed vote, he could change the way the vote is likely to play out in advance. He needs to make members feel that “yes” or “no” votes are consequential. If he says he is going to act anyway, it could give cover to lawmakers on the fence to vote “no,” since action — which polls show is unpopular — would come even without their approval. If he says he will not act without Congress, Obama is leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers and limiting his flexibility.

But what’s wrong with the President “leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers” if he intends to do so anyways? As Cillizza and Sullivan note, it limits his flexibility, but that is only if he is determined to overrule Congress anyways. If the President is not going to do so, then he can put more pressure on Congress to approve the force authorization by revealing that he will not act unilaterally. It makes their votes more consequential.

The scariest part of this is that if the President has done this calculation, then he may intend to disregard Congress. The only reason for him to keep his intentions secret is if he’s willing to act unilaterally or if he hasn’t made up his mind. Given that overruling Congress would be both unconstitutional and possibly grounds for impeachment, let’s hope it’s the latter.

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Does Obama Lack the Leadership Skills in Syria?

One of the most common criticisms of President Obama is that he doesn’t have the leadership skills to persuade legislators to support his agenda. The theory goes that if Obama were friendly to Congressmen or reached across the aisle more, Republicans would suddenly drop their obstructionism and work with him. Commentators on the left and right love to ding the President for this, but it’s almost comically untrue. Presidential leadership is a myth. The bully pulpit is vastly overrated and no matter what Obama does, Republicans are going to oppose it. No number of meetings, dinners or visits to Capitol Hill will change that.

This theory has come up yet again with the Obama Administration’s inability to convince Congressmen, particularly in the House, to support a strike in Syria. The Washington Post‘s Matt Miller articulated his six qualms about Syria today. Here’s number five:

The leadership question. In recent days, several business leaders in Los Angeles who voted for Obama twice have told me, unprompted, that the Syrian episode captures everything they can’t stand about the president. He lacks basic leadership skills, they say. Too much detailed public analysis and hemming and hawing, says one. No real engagement with his counterparts, says another, and so no reservoir of good will with either foreign leaders or with exotic species like Republicans. When Obama himself seems to lack conviction in his proposed course of action, they wonder, how will he persevere when any military step brings the inevitable complications?

Matt Lewis, of the Daily Caller, echoed a similar sentiment this morning:

Some people seem surprised the votes just aren’t there for Syrian intervention. I’m not. Call it the Vietnam syndrome redux, but after a decade of war, Americans are understandably war weary. Thus, the only way way to overcome this difficult obstacle would be to have a). an ironclad case for war, and b). a president who uses personal relationships to twist arms.

In this regard, he’s 0-for-2.

Still, absent a “slam dunk” case for intervention, personally persuading Members of Congress to vote for bombing Syria (in this environment) would require some elbow grease. For years, Obama has been criticized for failing to develop relationships with Members of Congress. Until now, he has mostly (miraculously) skated on this. But one gets the sense that it has finally caught up with him.

So, assuming that President Obama isn’t intentionally tanking the rollout for the strike because he secretly doesn’t want to go to war, how much is a lack of presidential leadership to blame for the lack of support? There’s no doubt that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have done a poor job selling the war to the American people (yes, firing missiles at a country is an act of war). But, if they had explained it well, how much would public opinion be different? Likely not much. The American public adamantly is against the strike. A number of House members have reported overwhelming opposition from their constituents. This isn’t a close public opinion battle that a better White House strategy could have swayed. It’s a major uphill fight.

That doesn’t mean the President has done an acceptable job here. He hasn’t. He switched from taking unilateral action to asking for Congress’s approval at the last second . The Administration asked for an absurdly broad force authorization. Secretary Kerry fumbled questions in Congress. It’s been a mess. But once again, commentators are overstating the value of the bully pulpit. President Obama can continue to condemn the chemical weapon attack and argue that the international community must respond. But, Americans are war-weary. He can only change public opinion so much.

As for his relationships on Capitol Hill, that has been overrated too. This is a major decision and legislators are listening to their constituents on it (see Justin Amash’s twitter account for instance). If Obama can’t sway public opinion in his favor (and I don’t think he can), then twisting the arms of Congressmen is highly unlikely to work too.

The President has done a poor job leading and arguing for this Syrian strike, but even if he passionately laid out the evidence for an attack, he would’ve had trouble convincing the American people. There are rumors that the President will make a national address this week to push for the strike. For those who believe in the power of presidential leadership, this will be a test of the bully pulpit. Don’t get your hopes up of it having any major effect though.

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.