Bowing to overwhelming public opinion, President Obama has decided to bring the case for a new war before Congress. He made the announcement amidst a news dump, but it could well be an historic moment whose memory outlasts Obamacare. Here are a few reasons why, listed in no particular order.
1) Obama no longer calls the shots on Syria. Sure, he claims that he reserves the power to go it alone, at least in principle, but he isn’t fooling anyone. A Congressional resolution against a war is, under the War Powers Act, sufficient to force the withdrawal of U.S. forces from any foreign conflict, to say nothing of the horrible politics of waging a war that Congress has weighed in against. So with respect to Syria, Obama has simply handed the keys to Congress.
2) Obama has conceded presidential power in general. This announcement wasn’t made in the near-secrecy of the dead Labor Day weekend for nothing. Given the White House leaks prior to the British Parliament’s vote against war, it’s pretty obvious that Obama was spooked out of making war all on his own. He senses (correctly, I believe) that he lacks the political capital to do anything without Congressional support.
By promising to go to Congress, where the result is anything but clear at this point, he has weakened the presidency — and really, that may be the single greatest and most historic accomplishment of his presidency so far. Obama’s unilateralism on other issues has justly brought upon him accusations of lawlessness. Now, he has created a precedent that will surely bind Republican presidents and perhaps Democratic ones as well.
3) The coming vote in Congress will be one of the most important since Vietnam: If Congress is sufficiently aggressive in reclaiming its constitutional prerogatives, it has a real chance of restoring its rightful place in the Constitutional system with respect to the final up-or-down decision on warmaking. If members of Congress are too timid and prefer to avoid personal responsibility, then this moment will be wasted. Kudos to Speaker Boehner if the war resolution that reaches the House floor (whether it passes or not) at least contains a finding that congressional approval is necessary for presidents seeking to engage in conflicts overseas — which happens to be the letter of both the law and the Constitution, as well as the explicit belief of our Founding Fathers.
4) Obama has undermined whatever urgency existed in American action on Syria:
If Obama had called on Congress to return immediately to vote on this, he’d be better off for it. Instead, by promising to bring the matter before Congress after it returns September 9, he’s shown that this isn’t a matter of any particular urgency. Also working against him: His own decision to argue for the conflict on the grounds that it won’t be too serious or involve action too decisive.
5) Obama has put himself in difficult spot: If he loses this vote, then Obama really is as impotent as his loss on gun control suggested. Both immigration reform and debt ceiling negotiations will hold forth dreadful prospects for him.
6) Obama has put Democratic incumbents in Congress in a difficult spot. As with the recent vote on NSA surveillance, the vote on a war in Syria is bound to split each party down the middle. The problem is that this vote puts Democrats in a far more uncomfortable position than Republicans. It pits a core liberal principle, far dearer to their base than to the Republicans’, against their loyalty to President Obama. Democrats who vote for war are likely to be primaried from the Left, and left-liberals will vote against them.
7) Obama has not put Republicans in a difficult spot: For Republicans, on the other hand, votes for war are not likely to be punished by the base. Nor are votes against it. This is a total freebie. Republicans of all stripes — not just the libertarian-leaning types — can argue against this particular war on any of a number of grounds, and many are already doing so as follows:
(a) Libertarians: This is one too many foreign entanglements after a period in which America has erred greatly in the opposite direction. Remember Iraq.
(b) Conservatives who typically support other wars: We would be intervening on behalf of al Qaeda-allied rebel fighters.
(c) Everyone together: We are unwilling to commit to regime change, and a limited strike that does not secure regime change will, at best, prolong the conflict, causing more loss of life without changing the outcome or significantly affecting the Syrian regime’s behavior.
The last argument could provide cover even for the most hawkish Republicans in Congress. It remains to be seen whether the John McCains of the world are willing to make the perfect the enemy of the good, or whether they’re just itching to blow things up.