In a move yesterday that few expected, president Obama announced that he is going to refer the Syria matter to the US Congress for deliberations before taking any action. It is a telling indicator of the state of the times that an action that should be normal was so unexpected.
This move is a good one, both substantively and politically. It should be the normal course of events for the executive branch of government to consult on a major issue of war with the legislature and get authorization before taking any action unless there is an imminent threat or danger, where I use the word ‘imminent’ in its normal sense rather than the tortured way that the Obama administration uses it (‘may happen some time in the future’) to justify its lawless actions. In fact, the constitution only gives Congress the right to declare war though that provision has been circumvented for decades.
The fact that Obama now says that the issue is “not time sensitive” and did not call for Congress to return immediately before the end of its vacation on September 9, and that France has now said that it will also defer any action until after the US decides, all indicate that the administration knew all along that there was no urgency and that John Kerry’s rantings were pure political theater.
This move is also a good move politically for Obama. Any military action against Syria in the absence of a UN resolution will be illegal under international law whatever Congress says. Obama knows this and he knows that there will be people in Congress who are waiting for him to make a wrong move to pounce on him. By punting to them and asking them to make the first move and grant him authority, he spreads the blame around.
What if Congress votes against any action, like the UK parliament? This is unlikely given that the congressional leadership is bought and sold by the military-industrial complex. But if by some remote chance there is a major revolt, Kerry has not said that Obama need not abide by their decision and can go ahead with a military strike anyway. Or Obama may breathe a sigh of relief and use it as an excuse to escape from the corner he has painted himself into. It will be interesting to see how much pressure the administration applies to approve military action.
But while this is a good move politically for him, giving him a little breathing space, it is also a humiliating comedown. This administration, like the previous one, has increasingly asserted the right to take any action it wants to in the name of national security. The constitution, international law, the Congress, due process, and public opinion, all important elements of what we consider a democratic system of government, were deemed to be irrelevant and were ignored by the increasingly dictatorial presidency using fear, secrecy, and sophistry to justify its actions. The fact at least one element is being taken into account, however marginally, has to be seen as a good thing.