House of Commons rejects intervention in Syria; where does Congress stand?

The British House of Commons today defeated a motion by the government to take military action against Syria “if necessary.” The motion was watered down to provide for another vote, pending findings by the U.N., before Britain would take part in direct military action. It still failed by a vote of 285-272.

This result is a major embarrassment of British Prime Minister David Cameron. He, after all, has played a leading role in urging President Obama to take action against Syria. And Britain had already sent fighter jets to the region.

But now, Obama will have to proceed without Britain. After the vote, Cameron announced that he would abandon plans to intervene militarily, since there is insufficient support for such action.

I believe that unless Obama intends only to lob a few missiles at Syria — a terrible idea, in my opinion — he should follow Cameron’s example and present Congress with a resolution. Obama should do so not because he is legally required to seek congressional authorization — I take no position in this post on that question.

Rather, Obama should seek authorization because sustained military action ought not be undertaken without the backing of the peoples’ representatives.

This was also my view, by the way, when President Bush was contemplating the invasion of Iraq. Bush received congressional approval, including the support of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Unfortunately, that support proved less valuable than it should have been, since they and many other Democrats turned against the war at the first signs of difficulty. Even so, Bush was well-advised to bring Congress into the decision. Imagine the eventual outcry if he hadn’t.

Obama, I’m pretty sure, has no intention of consulting Congress. For one thing, he’s far more of an “imperial” president than Bush was. For another, he has been embarrassed frequently enough by events related to Syria without risking the kind of humiliation Cameron just experienced.

This doesn’t mean that Congress need be silent, though. Given the importance of the action Obama appears ready to take, Congress should return to Washington and debate its own resolution[s] about what, if anything, to do in response to the clear evidence that Assad’s regime butchered Syrians in a large-scale chemical attack.

Unfortunately, Congress would prefer to remain on the sidelines. There isn’t much sentiment in favor of ending vacations and returning to Washington a week early just to take a position on a vexing, no-win foreign policy issue.

Where, then, does Congress stand? As far away from this situation as it can. And that suits Obama fine. Common ground, at last.

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