PRESIDENT OBAMA, the former constitutional law professor, was thinking as much about legal precedent in the United States as chemical weapons in Ghouta when he made his surprise decision to seek congressional authorization for his planned military strike against Syria. The Constitution has always been divided on military authority: The president is commander in chief of the military, but the power to declare war belongs to Congress. In practice, a system has evolved in which the president can order a military response to a short-term threat, while Congress must approve a longer engagement. At first blush, Syria’s use of chemical weapons falls into the first category; but Obama, surprising many of his own aides, argued that a strike would be just as effective in a few weeks as it would be now, and that Congress should be given a chance to vote.
The decision will help allay concerns, voiced across the political spectrum, about the growth of executive power. Furthermore, in seeking lawmakers’ approval Obama is also asking them to accept some responsibility for a wrenching policy decision. Congress owes the public a high-minded debate: This is no occasion for the usual horse-trading or procedural maneuvering.
Despite Obama’s willingness to share power, seeking congressional authorization at this moment carries risks on two levels. First, there’s the danger that Congress will give the president a premature blank check, as happened in the Iraq war; this time, members of the House and Senate should be clear that they’re envisioning a short-term set of airstrikes, not an open-ended conflict involving troops. Second, there’s the risk that either the House or Senate, for whatever mix of good and bad reasons, refuses to authorize any force at all. That would leave some US allies in the uncomfortable position of having answered Obama’s call for global action against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, only to be stranded without a leader. It would make Obama look weak and the United States look foolish.
But members of Congress shouldn’t authorize force for that reason alone. This should be a vote of conscience for every member. If congressional consultation is to mean anything, it’s to apply the values and expertise and diligence of hundreds of lawmakers to the question of determining the appropriate response to the Syrian regime’s attack on its own people. Foremost, of course, is the question of proof. As of now, the evidence of President Bashar Assad’s murder of more than a thousand citizens, including hundreds of children, seems strong. But as hearings begin today, all members of Congress should review the Obama administration’s case with appropriate skepticism. Then, there are the questions of how a military strike would affect the balance of power in the Middle East, and whether it would have unintended consequences in Syria. Which rebel groups would benefit most from this attack? Which anti-American extremists would be most emboldened by it?
Obama is fully justified in believing that the use of chemical weapons must not go unpunished. Without US leadership, Syria may face no consequences. But there are many ways to punish a global transgressor, and Obama — and the members of Congress he invited into the decision-making process — should make sure that America chooses the most effective option in a deliberate, defensible way.