President Barack Obama could likely intervene militarily in Syria without congressional authorization – or, indeed, without the support of the American people, a top lawmaker said Wednesday.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee and voted against going to war in Iraq despite overwhelming public support for it. Most Americans today disapprove of the U.S. conducting targeted missile strikes in Syria, per Obama's strategy, and the latest whip counts hint he would likely not get congressional support.
Despite Russian proposals for drawing down Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons, Obama may still need to heed military leaders' warnings that the use of such arms actively endangers the United States and requires punishment.
"It would not be a surprise at all to me, even if there were no congressional authority, that he would use his Article 2 authority," said Levin of Obama's constitutional authority to address security threats against the U.S. even without Congress formally declaring war.
"I don't know that he will. I think the prospect is real that he would," Levin said, speaking at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "The option has surely got to be supported in any way we can, that he has that option. [Congress] should do nothing to reduce the availability of options to the president."
That sentiment mirrors a series of polls of the American public that suggest as many as 80 percent are against the strike. Levin says the need to send a clear message against future use of chemical weapons worldwide trumps war weariness at home.
"I just don't think we can be guided in this kind of issue by public opinion polls," he said. "I've done a lot of thinking. I've done a lot of studying. I've done a lot of listening. I'm not, hopefully, arrogant to ignore public opinion, but after you're done you have to decide, 'What is the security interest of this country?'"
The public face of Obama's campaign to raise arms against Assad has been muddied by mixed messaging, Levin said, pointing particularly to gaffes by Secretary of State John Kerry. Levin did not acknowledge specific remarks by Kerry, though the secretary has made headlines in recent days for awkward public remarks.
Kerry commented during a recent congressional hearing that the Assad regime could avoid a U.S. strike if it turned over chemical weapons. The State Department later walked back those comments as hypothetical, though the Russian government has put forward such a solution.
Kerry also stated the prospective U.S. strikes would be "unbelievably small." Obama hinted at clarification in a speech Tuesday night, saying, "The United States doesn't do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver."
"A targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons," Obama said.