President Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization for a military strike against Syria has had five main consequences so far.
First, it sets up a test of Obama's credibility. Obama's decision to ask for congressional authorization, announced Saturday, took some of his own aides by surprise, along with most of official Washington and the media punditocracy. Obama had seemed inclined to go it alone, without asking for approval from Capitol Hill, in order to punish Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons.
Now the House and Senate are moving toward separate votes on the proposed Syrian strike. Those votes will probably be held next week, and failure to win approval could be devastating to the commander in chief's reputation as a leader. In some ways, Obama is putting the remainder of his presidency on the line.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race, said Sunday that rejection of the president's proposed strike against Syria would have "catastrophic" consequences because "the credibility of this country with friends and adversaries alike would be shredded."
Second, Obama is re-animating the anti-war movement. Activists, who might have taken to the streets immediately if a Republican president such as George W. Bush moved toward striking Syria, have been slow to turn against Obama, whom many anti-war activists admire as a social liberal. Now the reluctance is fading as the Syria issue gets more attention and more Americans fear that the United States would get drawn into a wider war after two costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some activists want to take the opportunity to pressure Congress to say no to Obama, and the protests are mounting.
Third, Obama is widening divisions within his own party and within the GOP. The prospective attack on Syria isn't a partisan issue. Some Democrats argue that Obama is playing with fire and shouldn't be intervening. Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., advocates narrowing Obama's options, possibly restricting the president to ordering only a very limited series of air attacks. Many Republicans feel the same way.
On the other side, there are many legislators of both parties who agree with Obama that the United States is the only country capable of taking a moral stand against use of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere, and should do so. In fact, some legislators such as Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina want Obama to take even harsher action against the current regime in Syria than the air strikes that Obama says he plans.
Fourth, Obama is fostering a wider national debate that is focusing new attention on foreign policy. His decision to seek votes in the House and Senate has spawned a sometimes ferocious tug-of-war over the U.S. role in the Middle East, American support for Israel, and the use of force. The nation's news media and the social media are filled with stories and discussions of the Syria issue and related topics. Obama is expected to use the presidential bully pulpit to make his case, probably in a prime-time speech.
"It's really incumbent on the president to go speak directly to the American people about what's at stake for this country," said former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on NBC's "Today" show. Gibbs, formerly one of Obama's most influential advisers, said the request for congressional authorization is "an enormous political gamble" for Obama. Most Americans oppose intervention or are very skeptical of it, according to opinion polls.
Fifth, in political terms, Obama is forcing his critics to take a stand. Nothing focuses the mind of an ambitious member of Congress more than an important vote. And Obama is now forcing his critics, including potential GOP presidential candidates in 2016, to actually vote on the controversial issue of war and peace and on presidential war powers. The vote guarantees that Obama's opponents will anger some in the divided conservative movement no matter whether they vote for or against authorization of intervention in Syria.