With a surprise twist on a holiday weekend in the United States, president Barack Obama announced that he would seek a vote in the U.S. Congress prior to launching a missile strike on Syria in retribution for last Wednesday’s chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus.
Coming in the wake British prime minister David Cameron’s humiliating defeat over a resolution in the House of Commons authorizing the possibility of British force late last week, Obama argued that, while he has already made a decision to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for the chemical attacks in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, he has also decided to seek authorization for use of force from Congress:
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’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. 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.
Obama’s surprise announcement postpones any US action until at least the week of September 9 — well after chemical weapons inspectors from the United Nations will report back next week about the nature of the attack and well after next week’s G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, where president Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, has repeatedly blocked action against Assad (a Russian ally) by the UN Security Council and earlier today, called the possibility of US and Western punitive strikes ‘utter nonsense.’
While Obama’s decision will hearten critics on both the American left and right who have called for a greater legislative role on the Syria question, it’s unlikely to satisfy hawkish critics like U.S. senator John McCain of Arizona who has pushed Obama toward supporting regime change in Syria, and it’s also unlikely to satisfy dovish critics who believe there’s no U.S. national interest in launching military strikes on the Assad regime. It will also leave multilateralist critics dissatisfied, given that Obama stated clearly that he was willing to act without the backing of what he called a ‘paralyzed’ Security Council.
But it’s also an unexpected position for an administration that pushed the boundaries of the 1973 War Powers Resolution just two years ago when it ordered military action in Libya. At first glance, Obama’s 2011 decision to support the UN-authorized, NATO-enforced effort to establish a no-fly zone and to arm rebels fighting against Libya’s late strongman Muammar Gaddafi without congressional authorization arguably violated his constitutional obligation to Congress, while a limited military strike on Syria lasting just a few days to a few weeks would not require congressional approval under any view of the War Powers Resolution.
So what gives? How can the Obama administration reconcile its position on Libya with its newfound enthusiasm for Congress on the Syrian question? The answer could transform the nature of U.S. foreign policy and the ability of the U.S. president to act decisively in the future. Continue reading How to distinguish Obama’s congressional vote on Syria from Libya example