A head-spinning reversal

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured a several-thousand word, intensely reported article on President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval of a military strike against Syria. Throwing ten reporters on the case, the Journal came up with “Inside White House, a head-spinning reversal on chemical weapons” (I am afraid it’s behind the Journal’s jealously guarded if occasionally permeable subscription paywall). The Journal reports:

When President Barack Obama decided he wanted congressional approval to strike Syria, he received swift—and negative—responses from his staff. National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned he risked undermining his powers as commander in chief. Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer pegged the chances of Congress balking at 40%. His defense secretary also raised concerns.

Mr. Obama took the gamble anyway and set aside the impending strikes to try to build domestic and international support for such action.

As presented by the Journal, Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval was an afterthought produced by unfolding events rather than a matter of constitutional punctilio. Indeed, constitutional considerations go unmentioned in the Journal article. The Journal reports that the military was poised to strike on Friday afternoon following John Kerry’s strong statement of the need for action (described a little differently by the Journal in the passage below):

On Friday, Aug. 30, signs of congressional unease were mounting. Some 186 Democrats and Republicans signed letters asking the president to seek congressional authorization.

That day, Mr. Kerry made an impassioned speech defending the president’s decision to consult with Congress as the right way to approach “a decision of when and how and if to use military force.”

Five Navy destroyers were in the eastern Mediterranean, four poised to launch scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria, according to military officials. Officers said they expected launch orders from the president at between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday. To make sure they were ready to answer reporters’ questions, Pentagon officials conducted a mock news conference.

Around 5 p.m., Mr. Obama went on a 45-minute walk with Chief of Staff McDonough. Mr. Obama summoned his top advisers to meet in the Oval Office at around 7 p.m.

“I have a big idea I want to run by you guys,” Mr. Obama started. He asked for opinions on seeking congressional authorization. Everyone was surprised, except Mr. McDonough, a consistent voice of caution on getting entangled in Syria.

The “big idea” was the idea to seek congressional approval, but the Journal presents no evidence that it derived from the Constitution or constitutional considerations.


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