by Mitchell Plitnick
US President Barack Obama’s decision to use force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons but to seek Congressional approval before doing so was very surprising. It is a major reversal of the behavior of every president since the 1973 War Powers Resolution was enacted. That Resolution, which set limits on the President’s ability to embroil the United States in a lengthy military action in the wake of two extended but undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam, has been a point of contention for presidents ever since, with all of them without exception calling the resolution unconstitutional.
The constitutionality of the resolution has never been tested in court, like whenever it has been violated (as Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon and Bill Clinton did in the Balkans). Congress has merely voiced its disapproval, but taken no further action. Neither side can be sure of how the Supreme Court would decide the question. But every Chief Executive from Nixon to Obama have claimed that it violates the separation of powers by impinging on the president’s purview as Commander in Chief. Others claim, with some justification, that it actually codifies presidential impingement on Congress’ exclusive authority to declare war.
Obama surely knows that the War Powers Resolution would not have even come into play in his proposed action. The resolution does not stop the president from taking a limited action that would last, at most a few days, although the constitutional question is considerably more complicated. But the tug of war between the legislative and executive branches that it represents is an ongoing one, with Congress always pushing for more involvement in foreign policy and the president jealously guarding his prerogatives. It is absolutely unprecedented for a president to give any ground on this without a fight.
That, however, is what Obama has done. He knows well that the US public does not want to see us involved in another Middle East war; that, as despised as Bashar al-Assad is, the Syrian rebel forces are no longer identified with the Syrian people Assad is hurting in the minds of many Americans, and that some of the most radical elements among them scare Americans more than Assad does; that Russia will veto any action against its Syrian ally at the UN Security Council; and that, especially after the vote in Britain’s House of Commons against action, the president has few allies abroad to offer international legitimacy to American actions.
Given that he surely knows Congress has no legal right to vote on this question, Obama’s decision is a purely political one. He is quite likely unhappy that his foolish declaration of a red line at chemical weapons has put him in this position, and he is being attacked from all sides, either for not acting right away or for bringing the US closer to a new intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts. He knows that his credibility in the region is now at stake and that allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as adversaries like Iran, will lose even more faith in him if he fails to act. So he is sharing that burden with Congress.
I suspect that, given that the red line has been drawn and most members of Congress will not want the US to look weak and indecisive — however much the Republicans might enjoy Obama looking that way — Congress will vote to support a strike. There will also very likely be a lobbying push in support of Congressional support for Obama. Saudi Arabia opposes Assad, so it would certainly want to see an attack. Israel is much less interested in seeing Assad ousted because a new Syrian government is unlikely to keep the Syrian-Israeli border as quiet as the Assad dynasty has for four decades now. But, despite his being the devil Israelis know, the Israelis don’t have any stake in seeing Assad emerge triumphant at this point, since that would represent a major victory for Iran and, especially, Hezbollah, and there is no way of knowing how Assad would deal with Israel after a victory. Still, while Israel has no great stake in the victor of this conflict, it very much wants to see the chemical and biological weapons Assad has destroyed. Israel does not want those weapons in Syria at all, whoever might have them. So, AIPAC will spur into action, although they may do so quietly, not wanting to be perceived as pushing the US into a war for Israel.
If Obama is wise, he will use the time he now has to try to, at best, find some common ground with Russia where they can come together on a diplomatic plan or, at least, shore up more international support for his “limited attack” on Syria. What seems unlikely, unless Congress does vote against the attack, is any other way to avoid a strike on Syria. Obama has committed the US with his red line declaration, and now, if he doesn’t act, not only does it damage his credibility; it will also tempt the Assad regime to do it again.
No doubt, Iran will be a major part of the debate. A major argument for striking Syria — and it is likely to be very persuasive on the Hill — will be that if we don’t, it will destroy our credibility with respect to “all options” being on the table in preventing Iran from a nuclear weapon. The more productive place for Iran to occupy in this discussion is much more of a long shot. That is, that Iran, if brought into the diplomatic process as a partner, can help find an actual resolution that stops, or at least curtails the massive violence in Syria. Such an engagement with Iran could also help solve the ongoing nuclear conflict and give Washington time to test the intentions of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. That course seems to have been hinted at by Obama in recent statements, and some excellent analysts, including Jim Lobe and Barbara Slavin believe he may be trying to open the door to including Iran in the process. I would applaud loudly if this turns out to be the case, but it still seems far too risky a political move to me.
In the end, I think Congress will approve the resolution. Having gotten an unprecedented gift from Obama in the form of a president asking for congressional authorization when he doesn’t have to, lawmakers will want to encourage such behavior in the future. Combined with the credibility question and Saudi and Israeli lobbying, that should bring a sufficient number of votes into his column. I suspect Obama must have done some informal gauging of Congressional opinion on this question in the days before he made this announcement.
It is unclear what Obama will do if the vote goes against him. It would seem unlikely that he would defy such a vote, but he might if the House and Senate split on it. That’s a possibility, as the House GOP is more virulently anti-Obama and isolationist in orientation.
But if Obama gets his stamp of approval, then the lasting legacy of this episode will be his decision to ask Congress at all. There’s a real double-edged sword here. On the one hand, it is obviously a more democratic way of operating. On the other hand, a major reason for keeping foreign policy in the hands of the executive is that Congress is much more subject to political pressure and lobbying. Increasing Congress’ role in foreign policy means increasing that role for lobbying groups, and not only AIPAC. It lessens the role of strategic thinking in the process, a role which is already far too small. As with many other aspects of life in the United States, it will only work well if people get involved on a much larger scale than they are now.