Theories abound as to why President Obama put to Congress the question of military intervention in Syria. One theory is that Obama decided he didn’t really to want to intervene militarily and hopes Congress will bail him out. Another is that he wants to be able to shift blame to Congress if intervention doesn’t turn out well.
A third theory is that Obama wanted to buy time in order, perhaps, to work out a secret deal with Assad and/or Iran. It’s also been said that Obama believed if he bypassed Congress it would impair his dealings with that body on matters such as funding the government.
None of these theories seems plausible. The first — Obama doesn’t want to bomb — is highly implausible on its face; he’s pushing Congress to agree to bomb.
The second — shifting blame to Congress — is implausible because Obama surely is shrewd enough to know that he, not Congress and not the Republicans, will be blamed if our intervention goes badly. The public did not let President Bush off the hook in Iraq even though Congress had bought in.
This is not to deny that Obama recognizes the marginal value of having Congress buy-in. But I doubt he believes it outweighs the potential embarrassment of losing the vote in Congress.
It’s also doubtful that Obama was motivated by concerns that his relationship with Congress would deteriorate if he didn’t seek authorization. Congress as a whole wasn’t clamoring for this vote; those members who demanded a vote were, for the most part, implacable enemies of the president. And what member will back down on issues relating to federal spending and the debt because Obama has called for a vote on Syria?
Finally, though it’s certainly possible that Obama is buying more time to make a deal, this seems like pure speculation.
So why did Obama go to Congress? I think he did so because he considers it the right thing to do. That is, Obama believes — as many do — that before the U.S. takes highly controversial military action in a war where serious nations stand on the opposing side, the peoples’ representatives should be consulted.
The idea that Obama acted as he did out of conviction shouldn’t be shocking. Most, though not all, of Obama’s important presidential decisions have been conviction-based. This is what conservatives mean when we talk about his ideological leftism.
To be sure, Obama’s most deeply held convictions don’t pertain to process. So it’s true that if Obama believed attacking Syria is imperative, he would not have bothered with Congress.
Instead, I submit, Obama believes that attacking Syria is the best response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. And he believes that having Congress vote beforehand is the best procedure — the same belief he held before he was president.
But how do I reconcile my theory with the fact that Obama intervened in Libya without seeking congressional approval? The answer lies in important distinctions between the two interventions. The Iranians weren’t involved in Libya. Neither were the Russians. To the best of my knowledge, no one was credibly threatening to attack Israel or U.S. interests if we intervened.
In other words, Libya wasn’t a highly controversial military intervention in a war where serious nations were on the other side. Syria would be.
In addition, the international community strongly backed the intervention in Libya. That’s not the case now. Conceivably, Obama believes that international support can serve as a substitute for congressional approval, though I hope he doesn’t.
In any event, I think Obama made the right call in turning to Congress now. And I think he made that call for essentially the right reasons — the same kind that caused President Bush to turn to Congress before invading Iraq.
UPDATE: I will live-blog the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearings on Syria this afternoon, at least for a while. As I understand it, two key members of President Obama’s “team of nitwits” — John Kerry and Chuck Hagel — will appear before the Committee.