For a man who is often so Hamlet-like he seems he should be attending meetings in a black velvet doublet and whose Syria policy in particular seems to have been defined primarily by actions not taken and decisions not made, Barack Obama made one of the most profound and momentous decisions of his presidency on Saturday.
By announcing that he would require congressional approval before taking action against Syria’s regime for gassing its own people, he took a step that seemed certain to have multiple, potentially profound ramifications. Here are just five:
1. A Syria attack isn’t a sure bet.
Military action against Syria that seemed a “certainty” on Friday is no longer assured. And if airstrikes do take place, their delay — despite Obama’s protestations to the contrary — make them likely to be less effective.
While the president, and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry in his effective remarks on Friday, have made a compelling case for American action in Syria, one can never underestimate this Congress’ ability to find reasons for inaction, partisanship or unproductive caviling. The far right and left of the parties are disinclined toward intervention. The more hawkish are disinclined toward actions that are too limited. And many Republicans are disinclined to do anything that might help Obama.
What is more, developments in the interim — like hesitation by other allies — could make the United States appear more isolated or the likely impact of attacks seem less desirable. All these things could contribute to a “no” vote that would make it very difficult for the president to reverse course and take action anyway.
If the administration persuades Congress to support military action, it will be seen as a victory for the president, to be sure. But it may also have given the Assad regime another two or three weeks to redeploy assets and hunker down — so that the kind of limited attack currently envisioned has even more limited consequences.
2. Red lines ain’t what they used to be.
The president has hemmed and hawed regarding his supposed “red line” on chemical weapons use yet again, further undercutting his credibility.
When Obama first suggested a red line, he cited movement or use of chemical weapons as being intolerable. But movement and use have, according to credible reports, occurred on multiple occasions since then — and the United States took no action.
This latest incident on Aug. 21 was so egregious it was impossible to continue looking the other way. And it was followed, apparently, by another on Aug. 26. Taking action seemed the only way to restore a sense that the president was a man who meant what he said. But then, late this week, as Britain balked at supporting Washington and domestic public opinion was seen to oppose any U.S. involvement in Syria, a spirit of hesitation seemed to grab the administration, culminating in Saturday’s bombshell.
Even if the attacks do take place, a new caveat will have been added to any future warning the president may choose to make: We will act — if the most feckless Congress in memory chooses to go along with him.
3. He’s now boxed in for the rest of his term.
Whatever happens with regard to Syria, the larger consequence of the president’s action will resonate for years. The president has made it highly unlikely that at any time during the remainder of his term he will be able to initiate military action without seeking congressional approval.
It is understandable that many who have opposed actions (see: Libya) taken by the president without congressional approval under the War Powers Act would welcome Obama’s newly consultative approach. It certainly appears to be more in keeping with the kind of executive-legislative collaboration envisioned in the Constitution. While America hasn’t actually required a congressional declaration of war to use military force since the World War II era, the bad decisions of past presidents make Obama’s move appealing to the war-weary and the war-wary.
But whether you agree with the move or not, it must be acknowledged that now that Obama has set this kind of precedent — and for a military action that is exceptionally limited by any standard (a couple of days, no boots on the ground, perhaps 100 cruise missiles fired against a limited number of military targets) — it will be very hard for him to do anything comparable or greater without again returning to the Congress for support. And that’s true whether or not the upcoming vote goes his way.
4. This president just dialed back the power of his own office.
Obama has reversed decades of precedent regarding the nature of presidential war powers — and whether you prefer this change in the balance of power or not, as a matter of quantifiable fact he is transferring greater responsibility for U.S. foreign policy to a Congress that is more divided, more incapable of reasoned debate or action, and more dysfunctional than any in modern American history. Just wait for the Rand Paul filibuster or similar congressional gamesmanship.
The president’s own action in Libya was undertaken without such approval. So, too, was his expansion of America’s drone and cyber programs. Will future offensive actions require Congress to weigh in? How will Congress react if the president tries to pick and choose when this precedent should be applied?
At best, the door is open to further acrimony. At worst, the paralysis of the U.S. Congress that has given us the current budget crisis and almost no meaningful recent legislation will soon be coming to a foreign policy decision near you. Consider House Speaker John Boehner’s statement that Congress will not reconvene before its scheduled Sept. 9 return to Washington.
Perhaps more importantly, what will future Congresses expect of future presidents? If Obama abides by this new approach for the next three years, will his successors lack the ability to act quickly and on their own? While past presidents have no doubt abused their War Powers authority to take action and ask for congressional approval within 60 days, we live in a volatile world; sometimes security requires swift action. The president still legally has that right, but Obama’s decision may have done more — for better or worse — to dial back the imperial presidency than anything his predecessors or Congress have done for decades.
5. America’s international standing will likely suffer.
As a consequence of all of the above, even if the president “wins” and persuades Congress to support his extremely limited action in Syria, the perception of America as a nimble, forceful actor on the world stage and that its president is a man whose word carries great weight is likely to be diminished. Again, like the shift or hate it, foreign leaders can do the math. Not only is post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan America less inclined to get involved anywhere, but when it comes to the use of U.S. military force (our one indisputable source of superpower strength) we just became a whole lot less likely to act or, in any event, act quickly. Again, good or bad, that is a stance that is likely to figure into the calculus of those who once feared provoking the United States.
A final consequence of this is that it seems ever more certain that Obama’s foreign policy will be framed as so anti-interventionist and focused on disengagement from world affairs that it will have major political consequences in 2016. The dialectic has swung from the interventionism of Bush to the leaning away of Obama.
Now, the question will be whether a centrist synthesis will emerge that restores the idea that the United States can have a muscular foreign policy that remains prudent, capable of action and respects international laws and norms.
Almost certainly, that is what President Obama would argue he seeks. But I suspect that others, including possibly his former secretary of state, may well seek to define a different approach. Indeed, we could see the divisions within the Democratic Party on national security emerge as key fault lines in the Clinton vs. Biden primary battles of 2016. And just imagine Clinton vs. Rand Paul in the general election.