For most of his presidency, Barack Obama has disappointed supporters mostly by not being different enough from his predecessor, George W. Bush. His failure to investigate Bush-era abuses like torture, and his decision to double down on Bush-era policies like warrantless wiretapping, had paradoxical effect: They made Obama’s presidency seem pointless, while at the same time offering bipartisan cover for the betrayal of his seeming civil libertarian promise.
So give President Obama credit for this: He’s preparing to disappoint his old supporters in an entirely new and innovative fashion.
The issue is Syria, of course. After months of slowly building a head of steam to intervene in the Syrian regime’s evident use of chemical weapons in the civil war with rebels, the president last week stopped, took a breath, and then announced he would ask Congress to authorize the use of force.
There were smart political reasons for this: For months, hawks in Congress—mostly but not only Republicans—had increasingly complained about the president’s lack of action in Syria. Others, of a more dovish constitution, suggested the president would overreach by attacking Syria’s regime without consulting Congress. Getting Congress on board spreads the political responsibility for taking action—it’s a lot more difficult for Sen. John McCain to grumble daily about the president’s decision to TV audiences if McCain actually voted to support those actions.
Politically wise is one thing. In our constitutional democracy, Obama’s decision to go to Congress also seemed, well, lawful. The Constitution is pretty explicit about giving the legislative branch the power to declare war; recent assertions that the president has the power to unilaterally take the country into war are clearly ahistorical. As one historian notes:
George Washington’s operations on his own authority against the Indians were confined to defensive measures, conscious as he was that the approval of Congress would be necessary for anything further. “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress,” he said, “therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”
But presidents have been evading that requirement for decades, of course, and it appeared President Obama set fire to the requirement entirely a few years back by pretending the American-backed war in Libya wasn’t really a war at all.
So: Obama’s decision to step back and share responsibility with Congress might’ve been the act of a man seeking to avoid the political hit for an unpopular act—the right action for craven reasons—but it also seemed to set a new precedent that would put the war-making genie back in its Constitutional box.
A day after Barack Obama vowed to put any intervention in Syria to a vote of both the Senate and House of Representatives, (Secretary of State John) Kerry said the administration was confident of winning a motion of the kind that David Cameron unexpectedly lost last week. “We don’t contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no,” Kerry said, but he stressed the president had the right to take action “no matter what Congress does”.
Get that? Kerry’s statement sets up this scenario:
• The president asks Congress for authorization to attack Syria, citing his responsibilities as “president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.”
• Congress could vote against that authorization. (The House appears to be falling in line, but the Senate is still in play.)
• Obama could attack Syria anyway.
Regardless of the merits of attacking Syria’s government, I’m not sure how that scenario doesn’t trigger a Constitutional crisis. As somebody who voted for this president twice—the second time, admittedly, holding his nose—it pains me to say: Such behavior might even be impeachable. Would Congress want that badly to protect its war-declaring prerogatives? Possibly not. But possibly.
Such a chain of events would be enormously destructive to the politics of this country. It seems that President Obama, having sought the assent of Congress, is now obligated to follow that branch’s will. Even President Bush sought—and got—authorization to attack Iraq. If President Obama ignores Congress, he’ll be responsible for the consequences. And this time, he won’t have Bush’s precedents to blame or excuse his actions. It will be entirely his fault.