Wise, Not Weak

Why Obama Should Be Applauded for Consulting Congress on Syria

Whatever his critics say, President Obama had little choice but to seek the approval of Congress before authorizing intervention in Syria, explains Aaron Magid.

Critics both domestic and foreign have been quick to lambast President Barack Obama for consulting with Congress before authorizing military action in Syria. Some label this strategy spineless, claiming he is afraid to unilaterally strike Syria; others argue that this decision emboldens Syrian President Bashar Assad and other rogue leaders. Nonetheless, Obama was right to request congressional approval. This course of action is what the Constitution envisions and also slows down the hasty rush to war.

Prominent conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity rebuked Obama for asking Congress to authorize intervention in Syria, saying, “Why now? Is he trying to push the blame if this goes wrong onto you guys in the House and Senate?” Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld critiqued Obama for his handling of the Syrian crisis, referring to Obama as the “so-called commander-in-chief” and claiming, “He has not provided leadership.”

In 2011, Obama failed to request congressional approval before launching strikes against Libya that eventually led to the toppling of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. This was met with skepticism among many Republicans, including Senator Rand Paul, who asked in a Washington Times op-ed, “Why did he (Obama) thrust our American soldiers into this battle without the consent of Congress?” Paul and other leading voices were justifiably disappointed with Obama for not submitting this issue to a congressional vote. Obama was determined not to repeat this same mistake again. Yet when he abided by the request of politicians to first consult Congress, many Republicans mocked him for this same exact act. In the bitter world of Washington partisan politics, some are willing to criticize Obama no matter what he does.

In fact, Obama had little choice but to seek congressional approval. Opposition among the American public to an intervention in Syria is high—much more significant than in the case of Iraq before the 2003 war. A recent Pew Research poll finds only 29 percent of Americans supporting a military strike in Syria. Furthermore, the parliament of Great Britain—a nation long considered America’s most loyal military ally—struck down a proposal to intervene in Syria. Unable to gather support from the United Nations Security Council and other key allies, and reaping such heavy discontent from ordinary Americans, Obama would have been foolish to embark on an intervention without the support of Congress. Such an operation would lack legitimacy domestically and abroad.

Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution declares, “Congress shall have the power to declare war.” The War Powers Act further explains that the military should engage in fighting if the circumstances “are pursuant to a declaration of war, specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by attack upon the Untied States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” A unilateral intervention in Syria does not appear to abide by any of these conditions. With Obama proposing a resolution authorizing military strikes for up to 90 days in a third U.S. strike in the Middle East during the last decade, such an operation appears to match the definition of war. Remember that President Bush did not imagine that the quick operations he sought in Afghanistan and Iraq would last so long. Therefore, Obama was right to authorize a congressional vote before deciding on whether to intervene militarily.

Another critique of Obama’s policy to wait for Congress was that it would impair the military’s ability to successfully strike at Syria. However, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs Martin Dempsey noted that if the operation were launched even a month later, the effectiveness of the military intervention would remain. Dempsey’s reassurance speaks volumes in terms of bolstering Obama’s claims that waiting for Congress does not impact the military’s readiness.

Perhaps the most important reason for Obama’s decision to consult Congress is to slow down the march among many in Washington towards another Middle East war. The time it takes to complete a congressional vote can be used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to orchestrate a diplomatic solution. The delay also forces Congress to ponder the following questions: What should America’s reaction be if Assad uses chemical weapons again? Will an American strike make it more or less likely for Assad to attack regional allies like Turkey or Israel? What is the American plan for the day following the attack?

Although many have been quick to bash Obama for delaying military action and consulting Congress, his decision follows national interests and was politically wise. With so much uncertainty surrounding an upcoming battle in Syria, Obama correctly understands the limits of presidential power. If only other American presidents had acted so prudently before embarking on military endeavors.