Before Obama Shoots, He Scores

Going to Congress is the right call, even if the president may not be doing it for the right reasons.

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President Obama wants to bomb Syria; that may or may not be right course of action – neither the prospect of bombing yet another country nor the idea of unchallenged use of chemical weapons appeals – but the part that he definitely got right was his decision to ask Congress to authorize military action.

“Having made my decision as commander-in-chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I am the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” Obama said in the Rose Garden this afternoon. “I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

[See a collection of editorial cartoons about Syria.]

He’s absolutely right, for both political and constitutional reasons. Politically, his position is stronger, both at home and abroad, if he’s acting with the unified support of the government. And don’t forget that an NBC News poll found this week that almost 80 percent of Americans believe that Obama should get congressional approval before using force against Syria.

Constitutionally, it’s refreshing to see a president acknowledge – albeit with worrisome hedges – that his power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces is circumscribed. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution gives the president that role, but Article I, Section 8 places the power to declare war with the Congress. Modern presidents have been too quick to embrace their power while minimizing Congress’ role.

That said, even Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization leaves some things to be desired. First, he couches his decision to involve congress as political, not constitutional. “Yet while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective,” he said. There are any number of constitutional scholars and members of Congress who might disagree with the president on that point.

[See editorial cartoons about President Obama.]

Obama’s going to congress as an act of political good will rather than a constitutional obligation is in keeping with his modern predecessors; presidents generally scoff at, for example, the War Powers Act but mostly manage to follow it in spirit anyway. See, for example, President George H.W. Bush saying he didn’t need congressional “authority” for the Gulf War but instead asking for congressional “support.” It’s part of a careful pirouette both sides engage in in an effort to avoid a constitutional crisis over war-making powers. Presidents ask for authority they insist they don’t need; lawmakers demand a role and then find a way to support the commander-in-chief.

Second, while the president declared himself “comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold [Syrian President Bashar] Assad accountable,” unilateral action is not the kind of example the United States should set. As Michael Shank writes in our World Report blog today, “if we want the Assad government – or any other government for that matter – to obey the strictures of international law, the West must set the standard for responsible adherence.” We should encourage people to do not only as we say but also as we ourselves do.

[Weigh in: Is Obama making the right call?]

Stay tuned. If form holds Congress will begrudgingly grant President Obama authority to strike. But given the nihilistic view of governance some of the more radical conservatives in Congress have, it’s conceivable that form may not hold. The aftermath of a negative vote in Congress – a replay of the British Parliament this week undercutting Prime Minister David Cameron and voting against intervention – could set up a choice between a politically crippling acquiescence or a full-blown constitutional crisis. Imagine that as a backdrop before which the fights over the funding the government, raising the debt ceiling and reforming the immigration system play out.

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