Commentary Magazine


Congress’s Cynical Syria Game

The New York Times headline on the debate over taking action against ISIS today is: “Lawmakers Want Congress to Decide on Military Action Against ISIS.” The headline, while accurate, overpromises a bit. The story that follows explains that it’s only three lawmakers, none of whom has demonstrated much influence on the broader contours of American foreign policy. When the story gets to someone who does have that influence–Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee–we get the answer: “it’s just not going to happen.”

Conservatives have repeatedly accused President Obama of plotting to go around Congress and abusing executive authority. They are usually correct, most recently with the astoundingly amoral and economically illiterate plan to ignore the Senate on an international climate agreement, pay off authoritarians to keep their suffering citizens mired in poverty, and singlehandedly incentivize a whole new market in global corruption. But on the issue of the use of force in Syria, conservatives should hold their fire: if Obama goes around Congress on this, it’s because Congress wants him to.

There are three factors working against a full congressional vote on the authorization for the use of force against ISIS in Syria (it’s doubtful one would be needed either way in Iraq, since there is an extant authorization there). The first is that President Obama doesn’t want one, because he doesn’t want to lose such a vote.

If it were clear he’d get the authorization he wants, the president would probably go ahead with it. It’s not at all clear such authorization would even pass. Usually, this president is happy to find any reason not to go to war. But in the case of Syria, his credibility, already at a low ebb, would take an irreparable hit if he did a second one-eighty on attacking the country in as many years. He’s already authorized surveillance overflights and there are reports his administration is sharing intel with Bashar al-Assad’s regime–a fact not widely confirmed but not shocking either, considering Obama’s desire for pinpoint operations.

If he lost an authorization vote now, he would probably have to stand down, since asking for the authorization would publicly acknowledge he believes he needs it to proceed. He would like a consensus and bipartisan ownership of a new front in the war on terror. But he might not get it, and thus is unlikely to ask for it.

On why Congress doesn’t want to vote no matter the result–the second factor working against authorization–the Times hits the nail on the head:

Members of both parties have long been reluctant to cast votes on matters of war, and most showed little appetite this month to do so on the airstrikes in Iraq, with midterm elections just months away and Mr. Obama promising the mission would be limited.

Congress doesn’t want to toss a war vote into the chaos of the midterms. Congressional leaders tend to protect their caucus from taking risky votes, and there are few if any votes tougher than authorizing war.

Another issue is that it wouldn’t be easy for this divided Congress to even come to an agreement on what the authorization should say:

“It would be wise for Congress to come together and draft a grant of some authority for the president to confront that challenge,” said Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. At the same time, he said he could not imagine “in a million years” that would happen.

“There is simply no way on earth that members of Congress are going to come together and agree on what the language for an authorization for the use of force in Syria is — it’s just not going to happen,” Mr. Smith said.

And the third factor working against a full vote is that members of Congress want to have their cake and eat it too. The Times hints at this, but I think jumps to the wrong conclusion:

But some lawmakers have grown increasingly uncomfortable with that hands-off approach, especially after ISIS beheaded the American journalist James Foley and released a video showing the execution. The White House announced last week that United States forces had tried and failed to rescue Mr. Foley and other hostages this summer.

In other words, they want the U.S. to strike ISIS. The Times seems to suggest this would help momentum toward a full vote on authorization. I would imagine the opposite is true.

If the approval would be far from assured (and it’s possible it might even be a long shot, depending on who you ask), and that Congress would bicker endlessly over just what it is they were trying to authorize, what would a lawmaker who supports the use of force want to happen? They would prefer the president strike without Congress.

This is practical, because time is of the essence. But it is also cynical, because it enables them to get their way while someone else takes responsibility for it. That’s true for Democrats who want to press a left-wing challenger in 2016 and would love an issue that has more traction than inequality or global warming, and it’s certainly true above all else for Republicans, who can get a policy they support while a president of the other party takes the flak for it.

None of this is to argue against the authorization or to dismiss the importance of an honest public debate and full accountability for a decision as serious as the use of force. It’s just to note that an Obama strike without that authorization would hardly be an example of an imperial presidency. It would be carrying out the wishes, however opportunistic, of both parties’ congressional delegations.

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