All Syria Policy Is Local

The political expediency of Obama's congressional push on Syria.


From a political standpoint, seeking congressional approval for a limited military strike against the Syrian regime, as President Barack Obama on Saturday announced he would do, made lots of sense. And let’s be clear, this call has everything to do with political considerations, and close to nothing to do with a newfound commitment to constitutional fidelity.

The first reason is eminently local. Obama has proved perfectly willing to exercise military force without an express authorization, as he did in Libya — just as he has expanded and drawn down military forces in Afghanistan, withdrawn from Iraq, significantly expanded the use of drone strikes, and waged a largely clandestine war on terrorism with little congressional involvement. The totality of Obama’s record, which future presidents may selectively cite as precedent, hardly aligns with a plain reading of the war powers described in the first two articles of the constitution.

Obama isn’t new in this regard. Not since World War II has Congress declared a formal war. And since at least the Korean War, which President Harry Truman conveniently called a "police action," commanders-in-chief have waged all sorts of wars — small and large — without Congress’s prior approval.

Contemporary debates about Congress’s constitutional obligations on matters involving war have lost a good deal of their luster. Constitutional law professors continue to rail against the gross imbalances of power that characterize our politics, and members of whichever party happens to be in opposition can be counted on to decry the abuses of war powers propagated by the president. But these criticisms — no matter their interpretative validity — rarely gain serious political traction. Too often they appear as arguments of convenience, duly cited in the lead-up to war, but serving primarily as footnotes rather than banner headlines in the larger case against military action.

Obama’s recent decision to seek congressional approval is not going to upend a half-century of practice that has shifted the grounds of military decision-making decisively in the president’s favor, any more than it is going to imbue the ample war powers outlined in Article I with newfound relevance and meaning. For that to happen, Congress itself must claim for itself its constitutional powers regarding war.

Obama did not seek Congress’s approval because on that Friday stroll on the White House lawn he suddenly remembered his Con Law teaching notes from his University of Chicago days. He did so for political reasons. Or more exactly, he did so to force members of Congress to go on the record today in order to mute their criticisms tomorrow.

And let’s be clear, Congress — for all its dysfunction and gridlock — still has the capacity to kick up a good dust storm over the human and financial costs of military operations. Constitutional musings from Capitol Hill — of the sort a handful of Democrats and Republicans engaged in this past week — rarely back the president into a political corner. The mere prospect of members of Congress casting a bright light on the human tolls of war, however, will catch any president’s attention. Through hearings, public speeches, investigations, and floor debates, members of Congress can fix the media’s attention — and with it, the public’s — on the costs of war, which can have political repercussions both at home and abroad.

Think, then, about the stated reasons for some kind of military action in Syria. No one is under the illusion that a short, targeted strike is going to overturn the Assad regime and promptly restore some semblance of peace in the region. In the short term, the strike might actually exacerbate and prolong the conflict, making the eventual outcome even more uncertain. And even the best-planned, most-considered military action won’t go exactly according to plan. Mishaps can occur, innocent lives may be lost, terrorists may be emboldened, and anti-American protests in the region will likely flare even hotter than they currently are.

The core argument for a military strike, however, centers on the importance of strengthening international norms and laws on chemical and biological weapons, with the hope of deterring their future deployment. The Assad regime must be punished for having used chemical weapons, the argument goes, lest the next autocrat in power considering a similar course of action think he can do so with impunity.

But herein lies the quandary. The most significant reasons for military action are abstract, largely hidden, and temporally distant. The potential downsides, though, are tangible, visible, and immediate. And in a domestic political world driven by visual imagery and the shortest of time horizons, it is reckless to pursue this sort of military action without some kind of political cover.

Were Obama to proceed without congressional authorization, he would invite House Republicans to make all sorts of hay about his misguided, reckless foreign policy. But by putting the issue before Congress, these same Republicans either must explain why the use of chemical weapons against one’s people does not warrant some kind of military intervention; or they must concede that some form of exacting punishment is needed. Both options present many of the same risks for members of Congress as they do for the president. But crucially, if they come around to supporting some form of military action — and they just might — members of Congress will have an awfully difficult time criticizing the president for the fallout.

Will the decision on Saturday hamstring the president in the final few years of his term? I doubt it. Having gone to Congress on this crisis, must he do so on every future one? No. Consistency is hardly the hallmark of modern presidents in any policy domain, and certainly not military affairs. Sometimes presidents seek Congress’s approval for military action, other times they request support for a military action that is already up and running, and occasionally they reject the need for any congressional consent at all. And for good or ill, it is virtually impossible to discern any clear principle that justifies their choices.

The particulars of every specific crisis — its urgency, perceived threat to national interests, connection to related foreign policy developments, and what not — can be expected to furnish the president with ample justification for pursuing whichever route he would like. Like jurists who find in the facts of a particular dispute all the reasons they need for ignoring inconvenient prior case law, presidents can characterize contemporary military challenges in ways that render past ones largely irrelevant. Partisans and political commentators will point out the inconsistencies, but their objections are likely to be drowned out in rush to war.

Obama’s decision does not usher in a new era of presidential power, nor does it permanently remake the way we as a nation go to war. It reflects a temporary political calculation — and in my view, the right one — of a president in a particularly tough spot. Faced with a larger war he doesn’t want, an immediate crisis with few good options, and yet a moral responsibility to act, he is justifiably expanding the circle of decision-makers. But don’t count on it to remain open for especially long.

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