President Obama announced today that he will seek congressional approval for US military action against Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons [BUT SEE IMPORTANT UPDATE BELOW]:
President Barack Obama said that the United States “should take military action against Syrian targets” in a Rose Garden address Saturday. However, he said he would seek congressional authorization when federal lawmakers return from recess.
The president appealed for congressional leaders to consider their responsibilities and values in debating U.S. military action in Syria over its alleged chemical weapons use.”Some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment,” he said. “Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are united as one nation.”
In previous posts (e.g. – here and here), I have argued that congressional approval is constitutionally required for anything more than an extremely small attack. In addition, congressional authorization would strengthen the political support for any intervention, and thereby increase the chances of success. So I very much welcome Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization. This wise decision stands in sharp contrast with the administration’s approach to the Libya intervention in 2011, where Obama violated both the Constitution and the 1973 War Powers Act by failing to secure congressional authorization.
If Obama fails to get congressional authorization, that might damage US credibility. Obama would then have to retreat from his threat that the use of chemical weapons by Assad crosses e a “red line” that would result in military retaliation. But, as Charles Krauthammer suggests, such a setback would be less harmful than a small-scale strike that fails to achieve any real benefit because it is not enough to deter Assad from future atrocities or accomplish any other worthwhile goal.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are calling for a much larger intervention that would “shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces.” Unlike the president’s proposed “shot across the bow,” this approach at least has a clear objective that might potentially be achieved. But I am not convinced that shifting the balance of power in favor of the Syrian rebels is actually likely to benefit either the United States or the people of Syria. At this point, the rebels are dominated by radical Islamists. If they prevail, the resulting regime could easily be just as brutal and anti-American as Assad. Perhaps there is a politically realistic way to inflict real damage on Assad’s government without thereby helping radical Islamist rebels seize control of the country. But, so far, I don’t see it.
In light of this difficult dilemma, additional public and congressional debate could have useful policy benefits, as well as legal ones. It’s possible further discussion will reveal an approach to intervention that has a strong chance of creating more good than harm. If not, Congress should follow the example of the British parliament, and just say “no” to this operation.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Obama says in his statement that “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” even though “the country will be stronger if we take this course [of going to Congress] and our actions will be even more effective.” This leaves open the possibility that Obama will launch a strike even if Congress votes against it. I think Obama’s position is legally dubious. As a practical matter, however, it would be extremely difficult politically for the president to launch an attack in the aftermath of a negative congressional vote. So the decision to go to Congress does constrain Obama’s options in practice, even if he continues to deny it in theory.