Congress appears split about a Syria strike, making matters difficult for President Obama. But even if Congress approves, Obama has taken an unusual step that could weaken the presidency.
Syria is already tweaking President Obama, hailing his decision to seek Congress's approval before launching a military strike as a "historic American retreat." Meanwhile, the leader of Mr. Obama's seeming ally, the opposition Syrian National Coalition, is calling him a "weak president," according to CNN.
The announcement Saturday that Congress will have a say on whether to punish the Syrian regime for allegedly using chemical weapons to kill 1,400 of its citizens is, on one hand, not entirely surprising. As both a senator and as president, Obama has been an unrepentant multilateralist. He engineered America's withdrawal from Iraq as speedily as possible and agreed to intervention in Libya only because the operation had United Nations approval and French and British leadership.
With no UN approval for a strike on Syria and British Parliament voting against action last week, congressional approval provides at least the sheen of a broader process.
But has Obama damaged the power of the president by allowing Congress its say? Is his decision, in fact, a "historic American retreat" – at least within the context of domestic politics?
Certainly, he's doing something that no recent US president has done. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983 and bombed Libya in 1986 without congressional approval, and Bill Clinton committed US forces to NATO air campaigns in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 and launched a missile attack against terrorists in Afghanistan in 1998 without congressional backing. When Obama signed on to the 2011 Libya operation without involving Congress, he appeared to be endorsing an increasingly clear doctrine of presidential power: Congress was needed only if the military engagements would be long and involve significant ground troops – as in the two Iraq wars.
Obama himself has said that any US strikes against Syria would not be "open ended" and would not include "boots on the ground." So in turning to Congress, he has reversed a 30-year trend in Washington power politics, perhaps with lasting effect.
In defending the president's decision Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to maintain the power of the presidency. Speaking on various morning talk shows, Secretary Kerry said the president has the authority to act no matter what Congress does. But would Obama go through all this only to ignore what Congress decides? For all intents and purposes, he has ceded the final decision to Capitol Hill.
Kerry said he expects Congress to endorse Syria strikes, and Obama has begun to woo members of Congress, meeting Monday with the Senate's two biggest proponents of military action – Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – though his tougher sell will likely be in the House.
But pass or fail, a congressional resolution on Syria will stand as a precedent that future presidents must address. The line between when Congress must be consulted and when presidents can act unilaterally seems less clear now than it was a week ago.
Perhaps that is to be expected. Since it began, the Syrian civil war has presented outside nations with choices that all seem unappealing in the extreme.
As an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has blocked any attempt at action against him through the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, Syria's connections with Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Israel threaten to turn any interference into a regional conflict. Add to that the fact that some (many?) of the rebels might have ties to extremist groups, and Obama – like other world leaders – has chosen simply to keep his distance.
But the use of chemical weapons is clearly deeply troubling to him. "It's important for us to recognize that when over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal," Obama said Friday.
Indeed, despite his commitment to coalition-building, Obama appeared ready to strike Syria without UN or NATO involvement – right up until the vote in British Parliament. Now deprived of his "special" ally, Obama must seek another closer to home.
And that might be the enduring lesson of Obama's announcement Saturday. In 2011, he had the backing of the UN in Libya. In the 1990s, Mr. Clinton had the backing of NATO. Today, it seems, Congress is a multilateralist president's "coalition" of last resort.
Though the decision diminishes the current view of presidential authority, the alternative would be worse, it seems, to Obama.