It was one of the biggest surprises pulled off by any president. The entire nation tuned in on Saturday afternoon, August 31, to hear President Obama detail his plans to bomb Syria in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Instead, we heard the president announce that while he’d made his own decision about the need to launch a military strike against Syria, he would not proceed until Congress had a chance to debate the issue and vote it up or down.
Immediately, critics in the foreign policy establishment and media accused him of making a “rookie” mistake. Frederic Hof, Obama’s State Department point man on Syria during his first term, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, complained that while Obama’s decision to involve Congress was “constitutionally sound,” it was “strategically appalling.” On Fox News, commentator Charles Krauthammer labeled Obama’s move “amateur hour” and said he should have gone to Congress for permission to bomb Syria six months ago. In The Week, conservative columnist Tom Rogan argues that Obama’s decision is “legally unnecessary,” “sets a dangerous precedent” and “reeks of weakness.” By going to Congress, Rogan wrote, “Obama has trumpeted his hesitancy to the world.”
So said many of the experts. And they are all dead wrong. Sure, maybe he should have called Congress back in special session instead of waiting another week. But, nonetheless, Obama’s challenge to Congress is the right move to make — legally, morally and politically.
Legally, the Constitution is clear. No matter what Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam, only Congress has the power to declare war. And the War Powers Resolution is clear. No matter what Bill Clinton did in Kosovo or Barack Obama did in Libya, absent a declaration of war, a president may send U.S. forces into action abroad only in cases of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
There’s no way the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, no matter how many innocent civilians were killed, constitutes “an attack upon the United States.” By law, a military strike against Syria requires authorization by Congress, as constitutional scholar and candidate Barack Obama himself told the Boston Globe in late 2007: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Hopefully, this will mark the end to a string of illegal wars over the last 50 years.
Obama’s also on solid ground, morally. Quite simply, we are not a dictatorship like Syria. We don’t want any president making a unilateral decision to take this nation to war. Otherwise, it becomes “Bush’s war in Iraq” or “Obama’s war in Libya.” As President Obama said when tossing the ball to Congress, “the country will be stronger … and our actions will be even more effective” when the president acts with the support of the American people through their elected representatives.
And politically, Obama’s move is a win-win-win. He wins by calling on Congress to act. He wins if Congress votes yes. And he wins even if Congress says no, because at least he tried. In effect, Obama is calling their bluff. Members of Congress demanded a chance to vote. Now they’ve got it. They say they’re tough on national security. Now they can prove it. They’re like the dog that finally caught the car. At some point, they won’t be able just to rant anymore. They’ll have to shut up, stand up and be counted.
There are still issues to be resolved. Why not let the United Nations take the lead? Because Russia would veto it. Why does it have to be us? Because we’re the world’s only superpower. What if Assad retaliates by lobbing missiles on Israel? It’s unlikely he’d be so stupid. Besides, Israel has launched three strikes inside Syria since the civil war began, with no retaliation by Syria. And, most importantly, what message do we send to Bashar al-Assad and other dictators by doing nothing about their use of chemical weapons? What’s the risk of acting or not acting?
Those are the issues Congress must debate. In the end, I believe they’ll vote to support the president’s call for a limited strike, and should. But, whatever decision they make, President Obama did the right thing in calling for their vote.