Why is Obama consulting Congress on military strikes in Syria?

From the Strong Constitutions blog.

In relation to the separation of powers, the key phrase in Obama’s speech on Syria today was:

“That’s [to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike] 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.”

There are three possible explanations for this.

1. “The Iraq Syndrome.”  Like the Vietnam syndrome before it, the Iraq syndrome means we’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends.  The experience with Iraq has made it impossible to sell military action without major public diplomacy.

2. “Blood Pact.”  Obama needs to involve both his own party and Republicans in complicity with actions he knows will neither be popular nor easy.

3. “He is a true constitutionalist.”  Obama gets that countries are stronger when they use the separation of powers to coordinate the branches of government to act energetically while upholding the rule of law.

The problem with (1) is that, for all the reasons Obama has outlined, this is not at all like Iraq in 2003.  There is no question that WMDs have been used, and the “war” on terror is not being used as a pretext to do what the President has already decided to do.

As for argument (3), Obama certainly has given evidence of wanting to limit the war-making powers of the President.  I don’t doubt that his sentiments are sincere. But so far his efforts have been extremely tepid.  Consider his campaign of drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen.

Argument (2) seems most persuasive at this point.  Obama knows that military action in Syria is unpopular and will be used against him.  Why should he take the fall alone?

That said, especially coming on the heels of the vote in the UK parliament against British involvement in strikes on Syria, it is great to see deliberative institutions being put to work.  Let’s hope some precedents are being set.


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