Obama Setting Important Precedent in Taking Syria Decision To Congress

I am still waiting to see what specifically is planned, but it is hard to imagine military intervention in Syria which will be much more than symbolic in opposition to the use of sarin gas. While I question Obama’s military plans, he deserves tremendous credit for his decision to honor the Constitution and take the matter before Congress. Walter Shapiro discussed the significance of this:

…the president, a former part-time constitutional law professor, may have also belatedly recalled the wording of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution that grants Congress the sole power “to declare war.”

But whatever Obama’s underlying motivations and however the Syrian vote plays out on Capitol Hill, the president’s decision to go to Congress represents an historic turning point. It may well be the most important presidential act on the Constitution and war-making powers since Harry Truman decided to sidestep Congress and not seek their backing to launch the Korean war.

Just a few days ago, before Obama’s decision was known, legal scholars from both the right and the left were in agreement that waging war over Syria – no matter how briefly – without congressional approval would bend the Constitution beyond recognition.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served as a Bush administration lawyer during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, wrote in the legal blog Lawfare, “The planned use of military force in Syria is a constitutional stretch that will push presidential war unilateralism beyond where it has gone before.” And liberal constitutional scholar Garrett Epps, writing for the Atlantic , concluded, “It’s pretty clear that an American attack would violate the Constitution.”

Shapiro summarized past decisions by presidents to use military power and concluded:

No American lives are in danger and the national security threat is hard to identify. Not only is NATO not participating, but also neither are the Brits, the United State’s closest diplomatic ally. With Russia serving as Assad’s enabler, there will be no Security Council resolution or UN mandate.

Every time a president employs questionable legal arguments to wage war, it becomes a valuable tool for the next Commander in Chief impatient with the constitutional requirement to work through Congress. That’s why it would have been so dangerous for Obama to go forward in Syria without a congressional vote or the support of the UN or NATO. It is as much of a slippery slope argument as the contention that Iran, say, would be emboldened with its nuclear program if America did not punish Assad’s chemical attacks.

Assuming Obama wins congressional approval, America’s coming attack on Syria is designed to set a lasting precedent: No government can ever again use chemical, biological – let alone nuclear – weapons without facing devastating consequences. As Obama asked rhetorically in his Saturday Rose Garden statement, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

But Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval may prove to be an even more important precedent. Future presidents – as they consider unilateral military action without American security hanging in the balance – will have to answer, “Why didn’t you go to Congress like Obama did over Syria?”

Confronted with a series of wrenching choices over Syria, Obama chose the course that best reflects fidelity to the Constitution as written. Hopefully, in the days ahead, taking that less traveled road by presidents will make all the difference.

I am not optimistic that any military action will make a difference as to whether WMD is used by future dictators. I am more hopeful that Obama is setting an important precedent here which may affect future decisions by American presidents to go to war. Next I am hoping that by the time Obama leaves office we have a better system for the institutionalization of conducting war in the modern era on issues ranging from drone strikes to surveillance. It is also amusing to see conservatives who have been making absurd claims of dictatorship under Obama now attack him for his decision to follow the Constitution.

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  1. 1
    makenomistake says:

    It is also amusing to see liberals who have been making absurd claims of dictatorship under Bush now shower praises on Obama for taking precisely the same path.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    I don’t see liberals showering raise on Obama over desiring military action but no, there is little comparison between the two. Bush went to war based upon non-existent WND. Sarin gas was used in Syria. Bush ignored evidence on the ground while Obama is basing his decision based upon facts. Bush went for regime change and a prolonged war. Obama is advocating limited action. Bush took a vague measure to Congress to authorize going to war, claiming at the time that the resolution did not mean we were going to war. Obama is being far more honest than Bush with his intentions.

  3. 3
    makenomistake says:

    The world was exactly as sure of iraqi WMD in 2002 as it is of Syrian WMD today.
    And while I would not advocate “regime change and prolonged war” for Syria, the value of “just muscular enough not to get mocked” as a military strategy or foreign policy is equally unclear.
    As for liberals showering praise on Obama, try reading what you write.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    “The world was exactly as sure of iraqi WMD in 2002 as it is of Syrian WMD today.”
    False. At the time the evidence was against Saddam having WMD which posed a threat, which is why liberals were so critical of Bush rushing to war based upon false claims.

    There is a huge difference between the type of intervention Obama is speaking of than what Bush did.

    “As for liberals showering praise on Obama, try reading what you write.”
    Total nonsense on your part. I have not praised Obama for anything which I criticized Bush, nor are other liberals doing this. I certainly have not praised Obama for desiring military action.

  5. 5
    Chris Karsten says:

    ” he deserves tremendous credit for his decision to honor the Constitution and take the matter before Congress.”
    Strongly disagree.
    He only made this decision only AFTER allied support (the U.K.) fell apart and international opposition stepped up (Russia & China). He should have asked for it right off the bat.
    Second, it is his own arrogance that got us into this mess by drawing a stupid red line on chemical weapons that someone was bound to cross.
    We have to give credit to former Obama car czar Steve Rattner for stating his argument so honestly when he, in a rare moment of unguarded honestly, tweeted “Rightly or wrongly, POTUS drew red line over chemical weapons in #Syria. No way we can back off now.”

    Obama’s creditably is now a big part of this. Too bad for everyone else here and abroad that may have to suffer for it.
    Any American, liberals included, should be offended by this.
    Obama has also stupidly said there is a red line for Iran in getting a nuclear weapon despite the fact that Iran has not attacked any county since 1789!! Iran will develop a weapon and you can now count on this getting us sucked into a conflict with Iran too.
    It’s amazing how liberal democrats suddenly think their president is this great principled guy, not political, not self-severing, and not tied to the on-going neo-con perpetual war state agenda.
    If you think Obama’s ultimate interests in the middle east are about high lofty principles and not oil, think again please

  6. 6
    Chris Karsten says:

    One thing I will add in Obama’s favor, however, is that he did realize his mistake when he unwisely climbed out on a limb over the use of chemical weapons.
    The very best thing that can happen now is Congress does NOT give Obama authorization. Let us hope and pray that happens. It’ll keep us out of Syria and an eventual mission creep, and it get’s Obama off the hook. I hope this whole experience will give us a wiser and more thoughtful president going forward.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    The red line isn’t as big a deal as many are making of it, ignoring what Obama actually said. He stated at a press conference that the use of chemical weapons would change the calculus for him. He never said that the use of chemical weapons meant he would automatically go to war.

    It certainly shows partisanship as opposed to looking at principles when you respond to Obama making the correct decision with criticism that he made the right decision the wrong way. While he undoubtedly did take other reaction into consideration, it would not have made any sense for Obama to seek Congressional authorization to use force “right off the bat” before he decided to use force. While I question the use of force (waiting to see the specifics), Obama did do the right thing with regards to taking this to Congress. This also caught the right wing off guard, leading to a new round of ridiculous attacks.

    Liberal Democrats don’t necessarily think that Obama is always motivated by high principles–he receives plenty of criticism from the left. However in this specific case he is doing the right thing based upon respect for the Constitution.

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