It has come to my attention that I haven’t sufficiently praised the president for taking the wholly unexpected step of consulting congress on Syria. And I haven’t. But I should. This piece by Walter Shapiro puts it into historical perspective and it really is a big deal. Going back to Truman, presidents have been incrementally seizing the power to wage war completely on their own terms. It’s getting to the point of absurdity. Obama stepping back is a very good move:
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?”
As I’ve said, I don’t think going to Congress is the be all and end all of this issue. Yes, it will at least allow for a democratic congressional debate on the subject, but if they vote for it (as is likely) it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a bad idea. Still, this won’t be the last time our leaders will be confronted with the question of when to intervene militarily and it would be a huge step in the right direction if this led to future presidents allowing a democratic process to constitutionally validate (or maybe invalidate) their decision.