Why not let Congress decide whether to strike Syria?

A child surveys the damage to his family's house in Idlib, Syria after it was bombed by Assad warpalnes (Photo from Freedom House via Flickr)

In his effort to appear strong and decisive on Syria, President Obama is missing a great opportunity.

Update: President Obama announced in a speech Saturday that he would seek congressional authorization before taking military action in Syria. A vote is expected after September 9th, once Congress reconvenes.

Is anyone really excited about going to war in Syria?

Go ahead, raise your hand.


The best argument we’ve heard for airstrikes against the Syrian regime is that Obama already (perhaps foolishly) drew a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons.

Now that Assad appears to have used them, Obama has to stick to his word, or risk losing credibility with Assad, Iran, and the rest of the global bad-guy community.

The strikes, which may happen as soon as Saturday, have mostly been framed as “punitive force” — punishing Assad for doing what we warned him not to.

They’re not, we are assured, the kind of “coercive force” that we might actually hope would achieve something, such as significantly altering the balance of power in favor of Syrian rebels. That sort of coercive action opens a whole new can of worms — casualty levels, troop commitments and post-regime power vacuums that we’re just not ready to take on.

So instead we’re faced with strikes that basically only achieve one thing — getting Obama out of the corner he painted himself into.

But he does have another out:

Ask Congress to vote to approve military action.

It already worked like gangbusters for British Prime Minister David Cameron. Parliament stopped British involvement in military action dead in its tracks.

The results of a theoretical vote in the US Congress are a bit harder to predict.

But regardless of the outcome, it would bring a refreshing shift away from down-talking messages like, “President (Barack) Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States,” (as National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said yesterday).

This kind of talk is a disappointing continuation of the “we know better than you because we have secret intelligence” tone that we’ve lived with for the last decade.

What about what we think?

Congress, for all its imperfections, represents the perspective of individual constituents much better than an ever-divisive President Obama does.

Locally, Congressmen Jim McDermott and Adam Smith have both issued statements skeptical of military action.

“We must consider the potential significant consequences of military action,” Smith said via email, confirming that he has, “received many phone calls, emails, and letters from constituents overwhelmingly expressing similar concerns.”

For her part, Senator Patty Murray’s statement is cautiously supportive of Obama’s current course.

A vote in the House would likely draw out bipartisan coalitions both for, and against, military action in Syria, disrupting the existing deadlock and dysfunction on other issues like Obamacare  and the debt ceiling. Hawkish Republicans and Democrats, as well as their constituents, would at least have some ownership over the strikes. They wouldn’t be able to wash their hands of  “Obama’s mistake” if things go badly.

As of right now, Americans seem to be pretty evenly split on whether military involvement is a good idea. But they overwhelmingly believe that the President should get Congressional approval before taking action.

If Obama’s main concern is teaching Assad a lesson, why not teach him one about leading in a way that actually reflects the will of your people?