As if Barack Obama didn’t have enough factors to weigh in thinking about what to do in Syria, now he has another one: Congress. This is like telling a man wrestling four alligators not to ignore that 30-foot anaconda that just slipped into the pond.
But trust me: As the debate over intervention builds, you’re going to be hearing more and more of the drumbeat that started mid-week, as Republicans start challenging Obama’s authority to launch a limited strike without congressional approval—especially after last night’s stunning vote in the U.K.‘s House of Commons, where David Cameron’s own party voted against his intervention wishes. For Obama, this brings its own set of perils, having to do not with international relations but with domestic politics, because even a successful military strike would not begin to insulate him from GOP political attacks. But first let’s deal with this news from Westminster. It’s amazing. For a prime minister to lose a vote like that, with his governing coalition controlling the house by about 100 votes, could be a game-changer. Cameron said he’ll honor the vote, which I suppose means no bombs. I think it calls into question whether Obama can even proceed with a military strike. It’s one thing to go around the Security Council; it’s been done. But not even to have England? That seems tough, from a PR point of view.There are those who say the opposite: That now that the U.K. has decided to get out, Obama doesn’t have to wait for them, needn’t wait for that second vote, and he can start the action this weekend. I suppose that’s possible too. But I think it’s more likely that the U.K. is going to embolden the Republicans to demand that Obama give them a vote.
That actually started Wednesday, when Speaker John Boehner wrote Obama a letter demanding answers to 14 questions (yes—14 points!). They’re not ridiculous questions, in the main. But it’s the way they’re framed. The administration isn’t going to answer any 14 questions, or if it does, it will inevitably do so inadequately from Boehner’s perspective in some way, shape, or form. In other words, the letter will likely permit Boehner at some point to say “the administration has not been forthcoming,” setting up an avalanche of House opposition.Speaking of which, 116 House members, 18 of them Democrats, signed a letter Wednesday saying that Obama “would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution” if he struck Syria. Finally, The Washington Post editorial page called on Obama to go to Congress, expressing the chirpy view that “we doubt that Congress, even one partially controlled by Mr. Obama’s partisan enemies, would weaken the commander in chief, and the nation, in a confrontation with implications that extend well beyond Syria.”Right. Are they kidding? Please. It’s Obama! Wouldn’t weaken the commander in chief? With talk-radio hosts and thousands of eye-bulging constituents demanding that they do exactly that? It’s what they live to do. You bet they’d do it. A chance to humiliate him not just in front of the Fox News audience, but the entire world!I don’t take the principle of congressional approval lightly. Congress has been circumvented before, most notably by Bill Clinton in Kosovo, but also by Ronald Reagan on Grenada and other times. That means it can be done. It doesn’t mean it should be done. Ideally it shouldn’t. On the other hand, this Congress is out of its mind with hatred of the president. Those are not supposed to be the conditions under which Congress deliberates.But if Obama circumvents Congress here, this better be the most successful short military campaign in history, because the House Republicans are going to be on him like white on rice about plans, preparedness, all the rest. And they have subpoena power. And God forbid anyone dies. They’ll be investigating “the Syria fiasco” or whatever they start calling it for years.
And they won’t stop there, probably. If you’re fishing around for an excuse to impeach Obama, well, it’s likely that his starting a war without congressional or Security Council approval will strike you as one (and yes, you will be cynical enough to invoke the Security Council as if you admired it). Remember what that House letter says—a strike would violate the Constitution. They wrote it that way for a reason.
It’s mind-boggling. Here’s a guy who didn’t even want to do anything about Syria. Then the chemical weapons, and the horrifying photos and videos, and the international outrage, and the instinct to enforce a longstanding international norm and his famous red line. (Boy, does he regret saying that now? He’d better.) In all this he could count on, as we can always count on, good old John Bull. But now even the Brits, owing to a decade-long Iraq hangover, don’t want anything to do with this, and suddenly the guy who doesn’t even really want this conflagration might have to act more unilaterally than even Bush did. Maybe he can get the Marshall Islands on board?
If Obama is going to do this, he’s got to go before the public and explain why we need to this, what exactly “this” is, and the ways in which “this” will be limited. If he can do that, and then if the operation is brief and succeeds (or even probably as long as it doesn’t fail spectacularly), he can wriggle out of this corner. But if anything goes wrong, look out—and not just in the region, but on the Potomac too.