Late last week, President Obama abruptly decided to send a request for authorization to use force in Syria to Congress. The about-face came after several days of claims by aides that the president did not need permission from Congress to act. In fact, in a speech on Saturday, President Obama still denied that he needed permission from Congress and sources in the Administration told Press TV that the president had already made up his mind to strike Syria, even if Congress failed to give its approval.
Why did the president decide to seek congressional approval if he believes that he doesn’t need it and his mind is already made up? Obama has a long history of overstepping his constitutional authority in domestic matters so why does he suddenly feel the need to go to Congress when there is ample precedent for conducting limited attacks without congressional approval? Two years ago when Obama went to war in Libya, he not only did not ask for congressional authorization for the initial use of military force, but did not comply with the time limits of the War Powers Act, denying that U.S. forces were engaged in hostilities under the law, a position that Politifact said “violates our standards of common sense.”
There are three reasons that Obama may have moved the ball into Congress’ court. The first is that he wants to use the issue to split the Republican Party. There is an intense debate between the GOP’s foreign policy hawks and the party’s libertarian isolationist wing. Prominent Republicans like John Boehner, Lindsay Graham and John McCain have lined up to support the attack on Syria while Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have spoken out against it. Marco Rubio, who has advocated aiding the Syrian rebels for two years, seems to think that Obama’s response is too little, too late according to US News.
The downside to this strategy is that it has split Democrats as well. For the past half century, the Democrats have been the anti-war party (with the notable exception of President Clinton’s intervention in Bosnia). Florida Democrat Alan Grayson told the Australian that he believes as many as half of all Democrats will vote against the authorization.
Another motive may have been to share the blame if the intervention goes badly. President Obama’s foreign policy has led to a string of disasters from the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence to include Iraq to the resurgence of al Qaeda and the rise of radical Islamism in many formerly secular Arab nations. Obama may well be looking at protecting himself politically if limited strikes ignite a wider war or lead to a victory by al Qaeda-supported rebels.
A key to understanding Obama’s flip-flop is the strong public opposition to attacking Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Sept. 3 shows that only 19 percent support an attack on Syria. Fifty-six percent oppose any intervention. A Washington Post/ABC poll released the same day showed 59 percent opposed. Opposition was almost identical for both Republicans (55 percent) and Democrats (54 percent), but stronger (66 percent) among independents.
A final possibility is that Obama is having second thoughts about attacking Syria and is hoping that Congress will deny the authorization to attack. Almost as soon as Obama announced his decision to attack, Administration sources began to leak information that indicated that the attacks would be very limited and half-hearted.
Yesterday, Obama tried to walk back his statement from a year ago that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would “change my calculus” on intervention in Syria. According to Politico, the president’s new line is that “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.” Obama continued, “So when I said that my calculus would be altered by chemical weapons, which the overall consensus of humanity says is wrong — that’s not something I just made up. I didn’t pick it out of thin air. My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility’s on the line.”
Although four months ago, White House officials made clear that the red line was “absolutely” the president’s, Obama is obviously having second thoughts in the face of overwhelming opposition. In spite of strong rhetoric from officials that the strike will happen regardless of Congress’ approval, it is unlikely that President Obama would make such an unpopular decision after being turned down by Congress.
A congressional defeat of Obama’s request may be likely. Political analyst Charlie Cook told the Financial Times on Tuesday that he would be surprised is the authorization passed Congress. A Washington Post analysis found the Senate split and heavy opposition in the House. Many members of both houses are still undecided.
Having stirred up a hornet’s nest of strong bipartisan opposition as well as finding little international support, President Obama may actually be hoping for Congress to deny his request. A loss in Congress would give the president the ability to avoid attacking Syria and the ability to save face by blaming Republican lawmakers.