Asking Congress’s approval for strikes against Syria will be good for the country, Congress and Obama’s Presidency.
It’s been apparent for some time now that Obama intends to respond to the horrifying chemicals weapons attack against Syrian civilians that occurred in August with punitive strikes against the Syrian regime. While some have called for massive military intervention, up to and including “regime change,” it appears that the potential strikes will in fact be quite limited with the aim of punishing the Syrian regime for violating the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. I doubt very much that this kind of limited military strikes will change the course of the Syrian Civil War or even deter the Syrian regime. It appears that Assad is in a fight to the death with the Syrian rebels and wining that fight will likely be his only consideration. Still the fact that Obama is only considering limited strikes and has already shown a willingness to “cut bait” in foreign entanglements where another President might escalate American involvement makes it look unlikely that striking Syrian will result in an Iraq style quagmire.
Unfortunately the popular political analysis seems to be that Obama is betting his entire presidency striking Syria, especially since he will now be asking Congress to voting on supporting such strikes before he gives them the green light. As Politico put it, “If Congress doesn’t back him up, his already troubled second term would be dealt another blow in the twin arenas of domestic and foreign politics.” Setting aside the silly unsupported claim that Obama’s second term is “troubled” this is the worst kind of politics-as-horserace reporting you can get when it comes to questions about war and peace. Obama is right to get Congress to vote on whether or not the US should strike Syria as requiring congressional approval will be good for the country, Congress and most of all Obama’s Presidency.
While the political press would undoubtedly treat Congress voting down approval for strikes as some sort of big defeat for Obama, it would probably be good for the country in the long run. After all, if a President can’t sell a military action to the UN, the American people or Congress that’s probably evidence that the military action might not be a good idea at all. At the very least it is evidence that the military action will make the US isolated internationally and wouldn’t be supported by Congress or public, which could be a recipe of major problems in the long run. Finally, Congress voting something down shouldn’t be viewed as some disaster for the country. We live in a democracy and democratically elected representatives being able to block something they don’t like is what democracy is all about.
Making Congress vote on strikes is also important for the good of Congress itself. Since 9/11 a disturbing trend has emerged where Congress ducks its most important responsibilities when it comes to questions about war and peace. For years Congress dodged questions about torture, Guantanamo Bay and civil liberties which allowed incompetent bunglers to set up deeply immoral and dysfunction systems outside of any legal oversight. At the same time, Congress handed the Bush Administration almost unfettered power when it came to deciding to invade Iraq and Afghanistan and refused to take a stand either way when the Bush and then Obama Administrations decided to prolong or escalate our involvement in those countries. And let’s not forget that it took a public leak of classified documents, not a congressional investigation, to reveal the existence of the NSA’s highly controversial surveillance activities. In short, Congress has been ducking its important responsibilities for far too long, and it’s time they ante up and kick in.
Finally, getting Congress to vote on possible strikes will be good for the Obama Administration in the long run. If Obama loses the vote he’ll get a temporary wave of negative coverage about his inability to control Congress, but that will only be temporary and in a few news cycles the press will probably go back to covering vital issues like Anthony Weiner’s marriage or the latest dish on Rand Paul’s feud with Chris Christie. Obama meanwhile will have avoided a military action unpopular with Congress and the public, and while I’ve heard of presidencies failing because of unpopular wars, I’ve never heard of one in trouble because of its failure to launch an unpopular war. If Obama wins approval he will have forced Congress, both the institution and the individual members, to take a stand on the issue. If the strikes go well they’ll share the credit and if they don’t they’ll have to share the blame; either way Congress’s standard strategy of ducking the tough questions and either changing the subject if it goes well or blaming the president if it doesn’t won’t be possible. And that’s a good thing.