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Obama turns to congress to try to salvage his Syria folly

President Obama’s supporters praised his announcement on Saturday that he would seek congressional approval for an attack on Syria.

Some commentators referred to it as a historic departure from previous practice. Journalist Walter Shapiro wrote:  “The president’s decision to go to Congress represents an historic turning point. It may well be the most important presidential act on the Constitution and war-making powers since Harry Truman decided to sidestep Congress and not seek their backing to launch the Korean war.”

Such glowing reports forget and overlook much. As it happens, President George W. Bush sought, and received, approval from congress for military interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And Obama the “constitutional law professor” (as his supporters remind us), in contrast to Bush, did not seek congressional authorization for his attack on Libya. And even now, Obama claims he is not required to seek approval for Syria.

Obama’s move is far from principled. It’s opportunist politics, from a president who is politically isolated and headed for a fall. As I pointed out in my previous post, the proposed attack is playing gesture politics ("just muscular enough not to get mocked" is how one senior official described it) but with deadly force and lethal consequences.  With the decision to turn to congress, Obama’s operation is going from bad to worse.

There has been little enthusiasm for Obama’s idea of a “limited” strike against Assad.  Most Americans are opposed, and those in favor do not appear strongly so. World opinion is even less supportive. The United Nations Security Council has been a non-starter, and the Arab League won’t fall in line. After the British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for backing, Obama became further isolated.  He and Secretary of State John Kerry claim to be speaking on behalf of the “international community”, and yet that “community” seems to consist of France, Israel and maybe a few others.

Ever since he started his propagandizing for an attack, Obama claimed he did not need congressional  authorization. As his White House staff later revealed, going to congress was never even discussed internally until shortly before the announcement. He shifted gears at the last minute because he was backed into a corner.

By throwing this over to congress, Obama is hoping that congress will bear the responsibility for the attack – especially if it goes badly – and he will not solely bear the blame. But if congress does not approve the attack, Obama hopes to minimize his defeat by claiming the high moral ground (“I was willing to do what’s right, but congress did nothing to stop Assad”).

Obama sent Kerry out to put the case against Assad (he later likened him to Hitler) and stress the urgency of bombing. But now Obama says never mind, it’s ok to wait. He has not bothered to ask members of congress to return from vacation. So instead, the vote won’t happen until the week of September 9th. Already this was the most pre-publicized attack, and now it has zero element of surprise.

Many Republicans are skeptical, and there’s a real chance that Obama could lose the vote. But Republican opposition is hardly principled either. For the most part, it is either narrow partisanship (wanting to see Obama fail) or even more strident war-mongering, for an all-out war against Assad.

Conservative have criticized Obama for his poor handling of this issue, calling him incompetent and amateurish.   Obama and his team have certainly looked bad. But what the critics miss is that Obama’s vacillations are more of a reflection of American decline on the world stage. Syrian media got closer to the truth when they referred to Obama’s decision as the “start of the historic American retreat” (in fact, the retreat could be said to have begun in Vietnam).

Over decades, US interventions have increasingly been detached from geopolitics and national interest, and more a reflection of trying to regain a lack of moral purpose at home by asserting itself overseas. With Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we’ve seen the exhaustion of this strategy. Now Obama is left with little authority, either at home or abroad.

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