Video: WH spokesman can't explain why Obama would want Congress's approval for Syria attack last year but maybe not now

Noah flagged this issue earlier, before today’s White House briefing, but the clip’s worth watching regardless. The full exchange, in which Earnest promises that O will consult and coordinate with Congress but hasn’t decided yet about seeking approval, starts at 52:20 and runs for four minutes or so. But the part that had me snickering comes at 55:40, when Ed Henry asks why Obama would have sought Congress’s approval last year to bomb Assad but might not seek their approval now to bomb Assad’s enemies, ISIS. What’s the difference? Earnest palpably has no idea what to say. He just asserts that last year’s situation was different and then starts rambling about the fact that Assad had used chemical weapons, but there’s no reason why that should be a key factor on whether the president might want or need Congress’s approval for an attack. If anything, it’s an argument for why the president shouldn’t need approval: If WMD usage anywhere and at any time is inherently a dire threat to the United States then the president can arguably attack the perpetrator immediately, without legislative deliberation. Does anyone seriously believe that, though? Obama doesn’t, obviously, or else he wouldn’t have waited around for Congress last year.

But there is, potentially, a distinction the White House can draw. Here’s the key bit from Obama’s speech to the nation last September about why he sought Congress’s authorization to bomb Assad:

And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.

That’s my judgment as Commander-in-Chief. But I’m also the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.

Arguing that Assad’s deployment of WMD was some imminent threat to the U.S. was always a heavy lift. How was it an imminent threat? Why? WMDs are scary but it’d be nutty to think that Assad would attack America or hand those weapons off to a proxy who might do so when he was desperate to have America intervene in Syria on his side. In fact, some people will tell you that Assad deliberately went easy on ISIS in the early days of the Syrian civil war knowing that the more they became the dominant force in the Syrian opposition, the more western countries would favor Assad’s side, a ruthless but brilliant calculation. There was never an imminent threat that Syria was going to gas Americans. There may, however, be an imminent threat of an attack against the U.S. by ISIS. No less than Mike Morell says he wouldn’t be surprised if a jihadi shot up an American mall tomorrow in ISIS’s name. If Obama’s worried about the group hatching terror plots then, yeah, arguably he’s got to hit them ASAP in Syria and can’t wait around for Congress to hem and haw over it. That’s going to be the rationale Earnest starts pushing, I’ll bet, once he regains his bearings and fields more questions about this tomorrow.

As Noah noted earlier, Chuck Todd thinks the White House is leery of seeking congressional approval right now because lawmakers can get fidgety about voting on new wars right before an election. I guess, but the polls show majority support for hitting ISIS; if Obama’s worried about Congress, it’s not “Republican obstructionism” that he’s nervous about, it’s Democrats alienating anti-war liberals by voting yes with the midterms less than three months away. If he ends up bypassing Congress here it’ll be because he’s afraid of his own base, not the GOP’s.

Jazz Shaw Aug 17, 2022 11:01 AM ET