In a sense, there is less than meets the eye to the debate over whether President Obama should take military action against Syria. Obama has made it clear that he does not intend to commit ground troops in Syria and that the air attack he contemplates is “limited.” Thus, there is very little risk associated with the kind of action Obama wants to take.
But by the same token, there is limited reward. The action Obama has in mind is unlikely to turn the tide in Syria against Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran. As such, it constitutes only minor punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and probably won’t deter future use, unless Assad believes that more substantial punishment would follow.
By going to Congress, however, Obama has raised the stakes. Now, as James Ceaser explains, the United States and the office of the presidency will suffer a significant loss of credibility if Congress votes down military action and Obama complies.
It’s no longer a question of vindicating Obama’s “red line” — an insufficient reason to bomb anyone. If Congress is unwilling to authorize the president to take limited military action in response to criminal outrages by, in effect, a puppet of our number one enemy in the world, it will be clear to that enemy and others that Congress is even less inclined to confront them than Obama is. And if House Republicans vote in large numbers against authorization, it will be clear that neither American political party has the will to stand up, even in a limited way, to Iran and other anti-U.S. Islamic extremists.
We also need to think beyond Obama to the institution of the presidency. As Ceaser notes, “the precedent of setting too low a threshold for blocking presidential initiative in foreign affairs is unwise.”
To be sure, Congress has an obligation to block presidential policies that are likely to produce meaningfully adverse consequences. However, as noted, the case against the kind of action Obama contemplates is, essentially, that it will do little, if any, good. I agree with Ceasar that this isn’t sufficient reason to reduce America’s credibility and curb the president’s discretion in matters of foreign policy.
Unfortunately, more than a few Democrats consider reducing our national credibility and curbing the president’s ability to take a strong position against our enemies to be worthy objectives. And, I suspect, more than a few Republicans would like to strike a blow against Obama because he’s Obama.
But this temptation should be resisted. Republicans should consider how they would respond if a President Romney, Cruz, or Rubio were seeking the authority the President Obama wants.
The national interest and the proper role of the U.S. president doesn’t depend on who holds the office. Republicans should vote accordingly.