He has every right to attack Syria if they vote no, deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken wants you to know, but out of the kindness of his big ol’ populist heart, he’s going to respect Congress’s wishes. Which is just what you’d expect the White House to say. Under no circumstances will they concede that he’s legally bound by what Congress decides, but per the Times, his aides consider it “almost unthinkable” that he’d symbolically defy the public’s will by ordering an unpopular attack after Congress has nixed it.
Like WaPo says, the real significance of this comment is that they’re now reckoning with the fact that they really might lose this vote.
“The president, of course, has the authority to act, but it is neither his desire nor his intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him,” Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told NPR’s Steve Inskeep this morning.
Privately, other senior administration officials have been saying the same thing for days: Absent another major development in Syria, they find it inconceivable that the president would move forward with an attack if Congress fails to authorize it.
But wait — what does O think? Is the new “we won’t act without Congress” policy something that came from the top or just an advisor spitballing over what he assumes to be true? Even Obama’s own team might be underestimating how far he’ll go in ignoring the will of the legislature. Here’s what The One himself said at today’s presser in Russia when CNN asked him if he’ll abide by Congress’s wishes:
I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate, because right now I’m working to get as much support as possible out of Congress.
But I’ll repeat something that I said in Sweden when I was asked a similar question. I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism. I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States. In that situation, obviously, I don’t worry about Congress; we do what we have to do to keep the American people safe.
I could not say that it was immediately directly going to have an impact on our allies. Again, in those situations, I would act right away. This wasn’t even a situation like Libya, where, you know, you’ve got troops rolling towards Benghazi and you have a concern about time, in terms of saving somebody right away.
So he’s going to Congress because there’s no pressing time consideration in this case for quick action — a claim that undermines the idea that a nut who’d use WMD needs to be punished urgently before he uses it again. But never mind that. Is he saying yes or no here to respecting Congress’s wishes? ABC followed up and asked him to clarify:
[JON KARL:] I still haven’t heard a direct response to Brianna’s (ph) question. If Congress fails to authorize this, will you go forward with an attack on Syria?
OBAMA: Right. And you’re not getting a direct response.
He can’t promise not to attack if Congress vetoes the AUMF it because, as noted above, that would mean ceding some executive authority over warmaking to the legislature. No president would do that, especially one who’s contemplating a surprise attack on Iran at some point down the line. But he can’t promise to ignore Congress and attack regardless or else Democrats in the House and Senate will feel safe voting against him, secure in the belief that he’ll do what he needs to do no matter how they vote. If he loses in Congress overwhelmingly, with bipartisan opposition, then public perceptions that the White House is defying the popular will in attacking will be even stronger. He’s got his work cut out for him as is — according to Politico, Pelosi’s expecting only 115-130 House Dems to go to bat for O when they really need closer to 200 to have a chance to pass the AUMF with marginal GOP support. If he tells Congress he doesn’t intend to listen to them no matter how they vote, who knows how low Democratic support will fall.
The new gimmick among Democrats to round up support is to pass a measure that would give Assad 45 days to sign the international ban on chemical weapons or else face attack. No one expects Assad to do it or to abide by it if he did, so all that is is a greenlight for O to strike through other means. In fact, re-read that first excerpt above (“absent another major development in Syria”) along with Obama’s comments at today’s presser and you can see the germ of the White House’s new strategy taking shape. Obama’s willing to respect Congress’s wishes right now because the WMD situation in Syria isn’t quite urgent yet. But what if, as everyone expects, Assad eventually uses gas again? Will Obama go back to Congress and ask again for approval to strike? Of course not: If there’s another sarin attack, O will strike immediately without consulting Congress and claim that repeated uses of WMD has made the crisis urgent in a way it wasn’t before. Gassing people once is fiendish but can be handled with a cautious, deliberate response. Gassing people twice is the sign of a lunatic who’s gone fully rogue and whose next move can’t be predicted. The president has no choice but to attack immediately, without congressional input. That’s what’s coming down the road, even if Congress thwarts Obama this time.
Exit question: If, by Obama’s own admission, he “could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States,” why are we intervening?