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What's next? Obama, Syria, and Congress


Obama's address on Syria on Saturday wasn't what anybody expected. And it didn't take long for the predictable critics to launch the predictable criticisms. (He looks weak; he's making the US look weak; he doesn't know what he's doing; he's emboldening Assad.)

But I thought the speech was excellent. And seeking Congressional authorization before attacking Syria is absolutely the right decision. Although plenty of observers disagree, I believe the Constitution and the US War Powers Resolution require him to do just that.

Obama is convinced that we should launch "limited attacks" on Syrian military targets to show Assad that there are consequences to the use of chemical weapons. The aim is not to overthrow Assad or destroy the chemical weapons. It is simply to, in Obama's words, "hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out."

Obama promises that the action would be "designed to be limited in duration and scope" – no "boots on the ground." I don't think he can guarantee that, and John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been pushing him to go beyond limited strikes, to cause substantial harm to Assad's forces and substantial help for the rebels.

But the cautiousness of Obama's response is proof that he understands the risks of an attack: we can't predict what Assad would do in response, what Iran and Hezbollah would do, what the civilian casualties would be, how likely it is that we would get drawn into further action.

In his push for an attack on Syria, Obama clearly doesn't have the majority of Americans behind him (not to mention key allies). But while opinion polls shouldn't dictate our foreign policy, particularly when the country is weary of war – and, in some quarters, tending toward isolation – sometimes presidents have to do unpopular things.

This particular president bears a particularly heavy burden: despite being elected not once but twice, some of his critics are determined to do almost anything to destroy him. Whatever we do in Syria, whether we attack or not, there will be blood on our hands. Having the individual members of Congress take a stand means that there will be blood on all of our hands, not just those of the president.

A rousing debate in Congress, televised for the world to see, is well worth having. US involvement in conflicts like Syria – regardless of the use of chemical weapons – is extremely complex. Those who want to simplify it, or avoid taking a stand, need to explain themselves.

Michael Tomasky, writing on The Daily Beast, notes another value in the involvement of Congress: It sets a precedent that "will now be cited by congresses well into the future whenever a president wants to undertake a jolly little shoot-up – he'll need to go to Congress first (for big, real, ground-troop wars, the pressure to consult Congress will always be great)."

"It's a big relinquishing of power," writes Tomasky, "a major constitutional recalibration that will outlast him and the yahoos whose votes he's going to be seeking, and Obama deserves props for it."

This is a tense, uncertain time, and the stakes in our foreign-policy decisions are enormous. It doesn't help that the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks coincides with this deliberation. It was on the 2012 anniversary that the attack on the embassy in Benghazi occurred.

The president has done what he needed to do. Now it's time for Congress and American citizens to do something we've needed to do for a very long time: discuss how we should respond to brutal governments who terrorize and kill their own people.

It's too bad there won't be a similar debate at the United Nations. This is an international crisis, involving international law, and the international community should take a stand, not just carp or kibitz from the sidelines.

"The cautiousness of Obama's response is proof that he understands the risks: we can't predict what Assad would do in response."