Although President Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against Syria, he and other administration officials continue to insist that he has the power to order a strike even if Congress refuses his request. In my view, anything more than an extremely limited operation requires congressional authorization under the Constitution. But President Obama, unlike Senator Obama, clearly doesn’t agree. In 2011, he ordered a military intervention in Libya without even trying to secure congressional support. This raises the question of whether Obama might choose to order an attack even in the face of a hostile congressional vote. At least at the moment, a majority of the House of Representatives seems to be leaning against authorizing intervention. So the issue may turn out to have more than theoretical significance.
Despite the administration’s dubious stance on the constitutional issue, I actually think Obama would probably back down if he can’t get Congress to approve a strike. Launching an attack in the face of explicit congressional opposition would be a very risky move, especially since numerous polls show that public opinion opposes an attack on Syria. If anything goes wrong, Obama would get a huge amount of blame, possibly wrecking his presidency for the remainder of his second term. By contrast, backing down in the face of congressional rejection carries much less political risk, for reasons Jack Balkin has outlined. President Obama is not the sort of politician that often takes major political risks. And I doubt this will be one of those times. One can argue that, as a second-term president, he is likely to be less risk-averse, because he does not face reelection. But even second-term presidents still worry about their historical reputation and the impact of their actions on their parties’ prospects. For what it’s worth, deputy national security adviser Tom Blinken recently said that the president would indeed back down in the face of congressional rejection. The New York Times reports that “White House aides consider” the idea of attacking Syria in defiance of Congress “almost unthinkable.”
Obviously, I would rather that the administration choose to defer to Congress out of adherence to constitutional principle rather than short-term political expediency. But, regardless of the president’s motives for doing so, a decision to respect the will of Congress would help set a useful precedent for the future, partially negating the aberrations of Libya and Kosovo, which departed from the normal practice of seeking congressional authorization for more than minimal offensive uses of force. Political elites and the more attentive part of the public will be more likely to expect presidents to seek authorization for future military interventions.