What Obama’s surprise move means

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.


  1. Chiroptera says

    Has there ever been a case where Congress didn’t approve of a President’s proposal for military actions?

    It is indeed a sign of the times when we are surprised when the Administration even bothers with a pure formality. Next thing you know, he’ll be going back to having the FISA courts rubber stamping spying on people!

  2. DLC says

    I guess I’m the odd one, because I was not surprised at Obama’s announcement, nor was I surprised at Cameron’s failure to gain authority for a military action from the house of commons. This is a completely different dynamic from the lead-up to Iraq, and with a completely different set of potential actions on the table, none of which include invasion. IMO the proper move here is to keep the pressure on, but wait for the UN Inspectors to issue their report. Not that the security council will do much, but they won’t be able to ignore or hand-wave a report from their own inspectors.

  3. Jeffrey Johnson says

    There is no declaration of war at issue here, so the constitutional authority of Congress is irrelevant.

    As Commander in Chief of all armed forces, it has during the history of the US been at the discretion of the President, when circumstances justify, to apply limited military force without a declaration of war.

    The question here is whether circumstances justify. There is clearly an interest, despite what mistakes the Reagan Administration made in Iraq, of the United States to ensure that mass extermination of humans with chemical anthropocides is something that nobody believes they can perpetrate with impunity.

    The situation in Syria is so complex, with implications so tangled up and reaching throughout the region and to Moscow, that nobody can predict with confidence what effect various actions will have. Having said that, if I were to have a choice between trusting Congress or our military, intelligence, and diplomatic professionals to have the needed expertise to parse the tangled mess and identify viable options, it wouldn’t be Congress I would trust to make the right choice.

    Given the current domestic political situation though, I think Obama has made the right choice to defer to Congress. It seems many Americans are frightened by the increased exercise of power by the Executive Branch since 9/11, some of those fears with good reason, and others bordering on hysterical paranoia, but nonetheless, the domestic political environment is so divided that giving Congress a chance to sound off makes sense.

    One must keep in mind that it is estimated that chemical weapons may have been used up to 30 times in Syria, but none have been close to the scale of the most recent usage. Is Assad testing the world because he hopes to greatly expand the use of chemical weapons? If that ends up being the case, certainly almost everyone will later regret doing nothing about the early ramping up phases when it was still possible to deter broader usage.

    One more point. The common trope that Obama has painted himself into a corner is ridiculous. He made a remark saying the use of chemical weapons was a redline that would “change his calculus”, and indeed it has. He never said the use of chemical weapons would obligate him bindingly to a use of military force. I think this confusion is because people wish to force the narrowest possible interpretation of the term “redline” because it suits their ideological desires to bash the President either for acting or not acting, the concrete details being far less important than the opportunity to score political points.

  4. thephilosophicalprimate says

    A well-informed friend of mind offered basically this analysis, and I suspect he’s on to something. The Obama administration offered a quite specific intelligence assessment, but without source material or hard evidence. What if they actually DO have that hard evidence, but deliberately chose not to reveal it at this time? This could be a set-up to draw both the GOP and Putin into overplaying their hand. Putin has even said something provocative about calling Obama’s “bluff,” but I consider it quite probable that there is no bluff at all. The POTUS can unilaterally declassify documents, so the administration can release its evidence on their own schedule. If the far right wing of the GOP opposes his plan out of sheer stubborn opposition to all of his plans, and given the casually dismissive stance the Russians have already taken towards claims of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the administration could release the concrete evidence they have and make everyone opposing them look very, very bad — which will dramatically change the dynamics of arguments both at the UN and at home. The Obama administration might just be giving their enemies rope, here.

    Not, mind you, that concrete proof that Assad’s forces have been using chemical weapons against his own people should automatically justify a bombing campaign. But that might not be the aim of the administration anyway. Instead, concrete proof might give the US and allies enough political leverage to force Putin to cut Assad loose and stop blocking UN-sanctioned action — obviating the need for unilateral US action. This early push for unilateral action in advance of the release of that concrete proof may have been intended to create a better climate for that reversal by forcing Assad’s allies to protest his innocence before the proof of his guilt comes out.

    After the debacle of watching Obama negotiate so badly and ineffectively with the Republicans over budget issues for years now, I fear this reasoning may give the administration far too much credit. Then again, letting Republican intransigence actually hurt the country may be part of the long game, too: The Republican trouncing in 2012 suggests that if that was the plan, it succeeded — and would have succeeded better if not for the Republican’s prior success in the states in advance of the 2010 census which allowed them to so effectively gerrymander themselves into a majority in the House of Representatives even while losing the popular vote by a significant margin.

  5. Nick Gotts says

    Has there ever been a case where Congress didn’t approve of a President’s proposal for military actions?

    For the UK House of Commons to do so is almost unprecedented – apparently, nothing similar has happened since the mid-19th century. It’s hard to imagine Obama would have deferred to Congress if David Cameron had won his vote: before that Commons vote, the momentum for an attack looked to be building to an early climax. It seems possible Obama is hoping he won’t get Congressional approval; but in any case, his political position was so much weakened by the British defection, he now feels he needs to spread the responsibility for whatever is done, or not done.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Frankly I don’t see how bombing a country, especially its capital, could not be act of war. The US has come up with all manner of terms of art to avoid calling such acts war but if, say, Russia were to bomb Washington, would it not be considered an act of war, whatever euphemism the Russians gave it?

  7. Mano Singham says

    I doubt that the Obama administration is playing such a deep game. Putin does not look to me like a guy who will change his mind once he has made a stand, whatever the evidence. If Obama had such evidence it may have been better to share the evidence with him quietly before rather than try to publicly humiliate him.

  8. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Well, if you want to equate a declared war with “an act of war”, then you’d have to refer to the US/Libyan War of 1986, rather than to the bombing of Libya. But I’ve never heard that called a war, and I think it correct not to call it a war. It was an attack, or a military action, or a bombing.

    Usually “act of war” is used by the country who is attacked when they want to use it as a grounds to declare war in retaliation, or to justify a retaliation. So the US could have deemed the shooting down of Korean Air flight 007 by the USSR to be an act of war, or the US shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 could be called (I believe was called) an act of war against Iran.

    None of these “acts of war” were “wars”, nor was any war declared. There was no declaration of war by Congress in the Civil War, yet the President directed his Generals to engage in numerous acts of war and battles. In the history of the US there has never been a one to one correlation between Congressional declarations of war or Congressional authorizations of force and Presidential orders of military action.


    I don’t know if President Obama intends to bomb Demascus. From what I’ve read it has been suggested the objective is to disrupt or diminish the ability to deploy chemical weapons further. It may be that some of these targets are in Demascus proper, but they may be near Demascus or in other parts of Syria.

    Certainly if Russia bombed Washington DC we would call it an act of war, but Russia would probably call it something else. We wouldn’t call it a war. We might use it as a justification to declare a war, or the President might retaliate without a declaration of war. Certainly if there was urgent need to prevent further attack, the President would not wait for a Congressional vote before attacking appropriate targets. If it expanded into an enduring military conflict with numerous attacks and battles, then it would be a war.

    I think it is a good thing that Congressional declarations should be required before we become engaged in open ended military conflicts that require a long term commitments of troops and substantial depletion of resources. But it is also good in some cases that a particular action, one you could call an act of war but which doesn’t merit the name “war”, can be ordered by the President without Congressional authorization if deemed necessary.

    So far in two years of Civil War in Syria it hasn’t been deemed necessary. But a chemical attack killing 1400 at least warrants consideration as an act that crosses a line. If nothing is done, we may next read of a chemical attack killing 14,000 or 34,000 after that. On the other hand, if Assad gets punished he may constrain himself to conventional weapons. Certainly a punishing attack would “change his calculus”. I don’t know, but I think there is good reason to consider action. Certainly our military’s estimation of what can be accomplished, and a thorough analysis of what responses from surrounding countries might be provoked must be carefully considered as well. I don’t know enough to say if we can accomplish something useful without drawing surrounding nations further into the conflict, but I don’t think an attack will occur unless they have reason to be confident that can be done. I certainly don’t know enough to say we should not attack, even though my human instinct is of course to wish everyone would stop fighting, and to wish the US would not be involved. I just don’t think wishful thinking is going to make the problems go away. Doing nothing now could end up requiring doing even more later, whereas nipping it in the bud could be the best option in the long run. I actually trust the President to make a good decision given the best available information and advice.

  9. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I don’t know of one, but it seems possible that Congress would not have approved of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia to force withdrawal from Kosovo, nor the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya to help the rebels overthrow Qaddafi, had Congress been asked.

  10. Mano Singham says

    How can an ‘act of war’ not be part of a ‘war’? Just because the perpetrator does not call it a war does not mean it is not a war.

  11. Jeffrey Johnson says

    The Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. A declaration of war is understood to be an open ended commitment. Of course a war includes many individual “acts of war”.

    In 1986 Ronald Reagan ordered US planes to attack Libya in retaliation for a terrorist bombing of a club in Berlin. The bombings were carried out on a single day. It was not a war.

    The same with Clinton firing cruise missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan in an attempt to retaliate for the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings. Not a war.

    But either of these could sensibly be called “acts of war”. It seems to me like a common linguistic usage that a part of something does not equal the whole. A taste of food is not having a meal. Hitting a Cricket ball (in practice) is not playing a match. But they could sensibly be called an act of eating or act of cricket.

    It’s not that unusual for violence to occur between countries without a “state of war” existing.

  12. henry_pet says

    Jeffrey, you are being obtuse. Bombings, dronings, cruise-missiling etc. are all acts of war, whether or not the attacked country is in a position, or chooses, to respond. We in the US have the luxury of debating this fine point, which the folks of Sudan, Iran, and most other countries in the world do not. That’s because of the law which supplants all other forms of law, international or domestic – Might makes Right.

    For those who believe in the outmoded concept of “rule of law” however, it should be uncontroversial that an attack by the U.S. on Syria is illegal under international and domestic law, because there is no way it can be spun as being consistent with the U.N. Charter, so long as the Security Council disagrees. The U.S. has signed and ratified this treaty, so under Article VI of the Constitution, this constitutes “supreme law of the land” to the same degree as the Constitution itself, and laws made by Congress.

    Also, the Constitution in Article II Section 2 states the President “shall be” Commander in Chief of the military “when called into the actual service of the United States.” To me this implies the President only assumes this role when called upon, undoubtedly by Congress, as several military powers are delegated to Congress in Article I Section 8 including but not limited to the power to declare war. The writers of the Constitution were savvy enough to realize that war is only one form of military action. Others included (in 1789) Letters of Marque and Reprisal, “Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water,” Piracies and Felonies at sea, and “Offenses against the Law of Nations.” It looks to me like they had it all pretty much covered, even if they didn’t foresee drones and cruise missiles.

    That’s what it says, and that’s what it means, in plain English. How it’s interpreted within modern political constraints is something else altogether, see “Might makes Right” above.

    Now we’ve hopefully dispensed with the illegality of this strike (2 levels of illegality if Congress does not consent, only 1 level if Congress is pussy-whipped into agreement), let’s move the discussion to whether or not the U.S. ought to wage war on Syria.

  13. Vincenzo says

    “the congressional leadership is bought and sold by the military-industrial complex.”

    The other factor at play is the Israeli lobby. The Israeli government has kept a low profile so far, but it is unlikely that things would have moved so far along without its approval or acquiescence.

  14. thephilosophicalprimate says

    With respect to Putin, I think you’re missing the plausible deniability angle here. Putin’s support for Assad is purely pragmatic: Syria hosts a Russian naval base. But Putin’s defense of Assad was not expressed as absolute support for Syria’s current regime no matter what. Rather, Putin claimed that the accusations of Assad using chemical weapons are trumped up. If clear, incontrovertible proof is produced at a later date, Putin is perfectly free to claim that he is “shocked, shocked!” (like Inspector Renault) to learn that chemical weapons were actually used, and drop his support of Assad in response to enormous and growing international political pressure to do so. All of which might play out *exactly* the same if Putin actually were presented the evidence quietly in advance. Without public release of the evidence, the Russians would have no grounds to change their public position of support for Assad — until after the evidence is made public. How, exactly, things will go once evidence actually is released may be an ongoing topic of backchannel diplomatic communication right now: Russia is just waiting for some reasonable assurance that they will continue to be able to access a Mediterranean port without having to detour through the Turkish Straits to the Black Sea.

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