Barack Obama’s constitutional contortions over Syria

Hail to the chief: Obama is a tonic for the troops. Wikimedia Commons

Tensions in the Middle East rose considerably this morning when Russian radar detected the launch of two rockets in the eastern Mediterranean, triggering alerts across the region. After initially claiming no knowledge, Israel announced it had launched the rockets to test its missile defence system as part of a joint exercise with the US navy.

Pulses returned to normal, but the episode added heat to the already febrile atmosphere in the region and won’t have done anything to alleviate the intense pressure US president Barack Obama will be feeling as he begins the delicate task of convincing Congress of the case for US-led air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.

The good news for Obama came in the shape of a partial endorsement from two of his critics: hawkish republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The pair emerged after meeting the US president yesterday expressing more confidence that previously in the White House’s plan to “degrade Assad’s military capacity and … assist and upgrade the opposition forces with training assistance.”

Last week’s Commons vote upset the calculus underpinning the drive for an international strike against the Assad regime.

Of the “big three” leaders initially favouring such action, now only the French president, François Hollande, appears willing to undertake executive-directed intervention without consultation of the national legislature.

Obama’s decision at the weekend to put the question to a vote of the US House and Senate took many people by surprise. As the US secretary of state, John Kerry, insisted the president has the right to sanction military action regardless of the outcome of the congressional vote. And this brings to mind George W Bush’s claim that he had unilateral authority as commander-in-chief to use force against an enemy without reference to the legislature.

Bush based his argument on a questionable interpretation of the president’s inherent power supposedly contained in Article II of the Constitution, nevertheless the 43rd president exploited the post-9/11 security culture to obtain congressional use of force authorisations to attack Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

Once in possession of them, he was able to set the agenda for these interventions without further consultation. He was also able to justify any actions in support of his definition of America’s objectives and operate in complete freedom from any expiry date for the termination of US military involvement. In addition he was almost wholly successful in getting regular emergency appropriations to fund military activities that lasted longer than anyone had anticipated when the Use of Force Authorisations were enacted.

Walk softly, carry big stick

In his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Obama decried Bush’s claims of unilateral authority but in office he has shown a tendency to utilise them, notably in sanctioning drone attacks to hit areas of Pakistan where Taliban fighters and leaders are suspected of holing up and US participation in international air attacks to assist Libyan rebels.

In the latter case, Obama defined the raids not as combat missions but as “humanitarian efforts”. This is likely to be his approach in asking Congress to back strikes against the Assad regime.

In seeking congressional approval, Obama has three major advantages. He can define the narrative of action, thereby setting the agenda for it. As commander-in-chief, he has control over national security intelligence that can be manipulated to suit his ends (as last Friday’s White House intelligence report on Syria demonstrated), whereas Congress lacks its own comparable body of information. Lastly, the president can require congressional support of his actions on grounds that refusal to do so will damage America’s power and prestige in the international arena that it seeks to lead (not something a UK Prime Minister can claim).

Martial pose: Obama has support of the media on Syria. Wikimedia Commons

Significantly, John McCain, Obama’s rival in the 2008 presidential election, has already warned over the prospective Syrian intervention: “The consequences of a Congress of the United States overriding a decision of the president of the United States on this magnitude are really very serious.”

The odds are that Obama will get what he wants from Congress. They are stronger in the Democrat-controlled Senate, but still good in the Republican-led House because the GOP is identified with US power, prestige, and patriotism.

If Obama fails to get his way, however, he faces a dilemma. He can still justify the use of force on the basis of his prerogative as commander-in-chief but doing so weakens his political and moral authority. He will face continual sniping from Congress over the scope and duration of the intervention and risks having any military appropriation requests to fund continued action unfavourably scrutinised by the legislature that controls the power of the purse.

Negative public reaction may also damage his party in the 2014 midterm elections, replicating the role of Iraq in the large Republican losses in the midterms of 2006.

On the other hand, if he abides by a congressional vote against intervention, America’s standing as a world leader is inevitably diminished. China and Russia will take encouragement to continue their obstruction against UN-sanctioned action and the Assad regime is likely to increase the ferocity of its attacks on rebel areas without regard to civilian casualties.

Paying for Iraq

Like Cameron, Obama may pay the price for public scepticism of Blair-Bush actions and the misinformation that justified costly, lengthy, and seemingly ineffective interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As US president, however, he still has significant tools in his political armoury to sway congressional and public opinion. The mainstream US media remains broadly supportive of intervention and revelations by UN inspectors of involvement in chemical attacks by the Assad could ride to his rescue.

Yet the stakes are high as Obama, possessor of a calculating mind rather than Blair-style: “I am right” zeal, well knows. Modern US history is littered with presidencies seriously damaged by unpopular foreign interventions – Harry Truman’s in Korea, Lyndon Johnson’s in Vietnam and George W Bush’s in Iraq.

Obama never has to face the electorate again and he may not be the strongest of partisans. But the last thing he wants is to help the Republicans, who have fought tooth-and-claw against his domestic initiatives, to regain power through his foreign policy mistakes.

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