His political fortunes have been floundering for months, but President Barack Obama suddenly has Congress over a barrel on Syria. Obama was rushing toward a military strike last week – until it became clear that he had insufficient support to do so. Public opinion was against him. Many lawmakers were against him. So when Great Britain and other countries left him standing nearly alone, Obama turned the tables.
By seeking Congress’ approval rather than acting alone, the president wins political cover and makes lawmakers co-conspirators in whatever transpires. If they authorize attacks on Bashar al-Assad’s regime, they co-own the chaos that might ensue. If they refuse, they are complicit in America’s failure to act against the barbaric acts taking place there. Heads, everyone loses; tails, everyone loses.
Obama must have some persuasive arguments up his sleeve that he hasn’t shared with the public. After meeting with the president at the White House Tuesday, the unlikely pair of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced they support the president’s request.
That’s not necessarily the kind of bipartisanship Americans have been begging Congress to show in recent years. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday shows Americans oppose military action in Syria, 48 percent to 29 percent. Republicans, Democrats and independents all oppose the idea to varying degrees.
That’s why Obama needs to do much more than win Congress’ backing. He must convince the American people that limited airstrikes are designed and equipped not just to save face but to further vital U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began that process before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, but we need to hear it directly from the president.
The president didn’t have to put himself in such a difficult position. He didn’t have to draw a “red line,” even if its one that’s been recognized for years. When he did and Assad crossed it, he didn’t have to support yet another foray into the Middle East.
Once he did, though, his decision to seek congressional approval was right, even if it was driven by political considerations more than constitutional ones. An action fraught with such consequences should have wider support.
Even so, Obama has put Congress – and the country – in a delicate spot. Lawmakers either approve a dubious military operation, or they deny a president’s request for the use of force for the first time in American history, a move that brings troubling political fallout even if it’s not motivated by politics.
As we’ve said before, there are no good options. But the risks of military engagement are so great that Congress should be wary of Obama’s request. At a minimum Congress should force the administration to provide explicit detail proving that chemical weapons were used and that Assad is who used them. And lawmakers should craft a resolution that leaves no doubt about what they are authorizing and what they aren’t.
Better yet, everyone should slow down. After two years of Assad’s atrocities and two weeks of telegraphing our military plans, a little more time thinking the options through would be time well spent.
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