The White House suddenly shifted direction on the necessity of Congressional authorization for a strike against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. For the last two or three days, various officials have insisted that Barack Obama has the authority to order military action in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but today Obama himself committed to seeking approval from Capitol Hill first:
President Obama said Saturday that the United States has decided to use military force against Syria, saying last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack there was “an attack on human dignity,” but that he has decided to seek congressional authorization for such a strike.
The announcement appeared to put off an imminent cruise missile attack on Syria and opens the door to what will almost certainly be a contentious and protracted debate.
Obama’s remarks came as senior administration officials were making a fresh round of calls to congressional leaders on Saturday in an effort to bolster support for a potential military strike on Syria, officials said.
The change is certainly abrupt, but hardly surprising. When the UK’s David Cameron was forced to withdraw from the coalition, that left Obama politically exposed both at home and abroad. With only France enthusiastic about taking part in military action, it became a lot more important for Obama to get a vote of confidence at home. Plus, Obama’s rhetoric against George W. Bush during the 2007-8 presidential campaign made his hypocrisy on executive power painfully obvious, with even his own party insisting that he needed to get a Congressional blessing first.
That creates more headaches for Obama, however. First, Congress isn’t back until September 9th [see update below], which means this will take a couple of weeks to accomplish — if it can be accomplished at all. Capitol Hill might be inclined to defer to the executive, but only a handful of House and Senate members are enthusiastic about striking Syria, even after more than a week of beating the war drums. The opposition to another engagement will be fierce, and so far the White House has given a very ambiguous and diffident picture about the goals of a military action and the ability to contain the consequences afterward. On the other hand, this point from NPR’s Frank James will be on the minds of Capitol Hill denizens, too:
Obama's decision to seek congressional authority puts Congress on spot, especially If they vote no and Assad uses sarin again.
— Frank James (@frajam) August 31, 2013
Earlier this week, Senator Bob Corker advised Obama to take his case to Congress — in order to get people to act more seriously about the issue. He’s about to get his wish.
Update: It’s possible for Harry Reid and John Boehner to arrange an early return for Congress, of course. They’re not scheduled to be back in full session until the 9th, but that could change.