Obama breaks from precedent in asking Congress for approval to strike Syria

President Obama’s surprise decision to seek congressional blessing to strike Syria is a sharp break from when he committed the U.S. to NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya.

It reversed apparent plans for an imminent strike without Capitol Hill approval and represented a departure from the policies of several predecessors, who routinely launched military strikes without lawmakers' blessing.

For example, President Clinton sent missiles into the Sudan and Afghanistan without asking Congress and more broadly took part in the campaign in Kosovo, while President Reagan hit Libya with air strikes and deployed troops to Grenada.

Congress did authorize President George H.W. Bush’s war against Iraq (albeit after a major troop build-up in the region already happened) and President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq over a decade later.

Bush also went into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks under a sweeping, open-ended anti-terror resolution that Congress overwhelmingly approved.

Several analysts said the decision appeared rooted in the unique dilemma Obama that Syria posed.

There is not broad public support for a military strike despite U.S. evidence the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians.

And both political parties in Congress appear divided over what to do.

By asking for approval, the president forces many of those lawmakers to get off the fence.

“It seems to me that going to Congress is a way for President Obama to try to share responsibility for – and downplay partisanship with respect to – whatever ultimately happens with respect to Syria,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at American University’s law school.

“Given how fraught the politics are, going to Congress seems both an institutionally responsible and politically pragmatic step for the President to be taking,” Vladeck said.

The risk is that Obama will handcuff himself politically if Congress votes no — though some think the White House might be ok with that.

Obama, after all, has not appeared interested in getting the U.S. involved in Syria until the most recent allegations of chemical attacks.

“If Congress fails to give the president the backing he desires, then the administration can back away from the red line with some justification other than the thought that the red line was ill-considered to begin with,” said Peter R. Mansoor, a professor of military history at the Ohio State University and a retired U.S. Army colonel.

Rather than a way to share responsibility, some critics saw Obama abdicating his duties.

“[Obama] may be trying to escape responsibility,” David Frum, a conservative analyst and former aide to President George W. Bush, said on CNN Saturday evening.

“He has put the responsibility into the hands of a Congress that is notoriously paralyzed and dysfunctional,” Frum added.

Congress has not formally declared war since World War II, but the War Powers Resolution of 1973 gives presidents authority to use military force for up to 90 days without congressional action.

In asking Congress for pre-approval on Saturday, Obama sent them a War Powers Resolution authorization even as he insisted he could act without their approval.

“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” Obama said in 2007.

However, Obama did cast the alleged Syrian chemical attack outside Damascus as a threat to U.S. security, warning that failing to confront use of the weapons could lead to their “proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”

The New York Times reported Saturday that Obama felt isolated on Syria — particularly after the British Parliament on Thursday rejected involvement.

The United Nations Security Council would not approve action given opposition by Russia and China; Obama declared Saturday that the United Nations’ Security Council is “paralyzed.”

Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith said Obama is “taking a big risk here” but cheered the decision to go to Congress.

“[H]e will be incomparably strengthened, legally and especially politically, if he is able to win congressional support. And in any event [with] his request for support from Congress he will force every member to be accountable, one way or the other, for what he does,” he wrote in a blog post after Obama’s announcement.