Amid growing signs that President Barack Obama may not win the approval from Congress that he is seeking for a military strike against Syria, the increasingly important question is: Will he act on his own?
The president and has advisers have studiously avoided answering the question.
That’s because there is nothing but trouble to be gained by answering it.
The president repeatedly has made it clear that he believes he has the authority to act on his own. Yet he decided to seek congressional approval, he says, because it would strengthen the United States’ hand. Pressed about that moment in which he decided to seek approval, he also said that his military advisers told him that he had plenty of time; striking now or striking later would work equally as well.
Telegraphing to Congress that he will proceed with or without them only would inflame sentiment on Capitol Hill that is weighing heavily against the president.
Yet Obama has carried the “red line” rhetoric about the moral imperative of a response to the deployment of chemical weapons banned by an international treaty backed by nations representing “98 percent of the world’s population” so far that, ultimately, failure to act would undermine both the president and the nation’s credibility in the eyes of actors such as Iran and North Korea.
“My credibility is not on the line,” Obama said in a joint press conference with the Swedish prime minister in Stockholm yesterday en route to the Group of 20 industrialized nations’ summit in St. Petersburg, where he arrived today. “The international community’s credibility is on the line,” he said. “And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line — because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important…”
“And I do think that we have to act,” he said, “because if we don’t, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions, and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity. And those international norms begin to erode. And other despots and authoritarian regimes can start looking and saying, that’s something we can get away with. And that, then, calls into question other international norms and laws of war and whether those are going to be enforced…
“What happens if Congress doesn’t approve it,” he said. “I believe that Congress will approve it. I believe Congress will approve it because I think America recognizes that, as difficult as it is to take any military action — even as one as limited as we’re talking about, even one without boots on the ground — that’s a sober decision. But I think America also recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time, this world becomes less safe. It becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, said: “A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments, including the president’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments.”
Had the British Parliament not rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to strike Syria, would Obama have sought congressional approval, Kerry was asked.
“I believe he absolutely would have,” said Kerry, whose own forceful public statement about the need for U.S. action on Friday has been widely perceived as undermined by Obama’s announcement the next day that he would go to Congress first. “I think the president was thinking about this. There were discussions to some degree about whether or not it should happen. He hadn’t made up his mind. He certainly didn’t announce it to us. But my personal belief is, yes.”
If the U.S. does not act, the administration also was asked, what is the likelihood that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s government will use chemical weapons again?
While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said “the likelihood is very high,” Kerry said: “I might even put it at 100 percent.” He alluded then, as he repeatedly has at the House and Senate hearings on this, to the classified intelligence supporting the administration’s case. “You should go check the intel on it,” Kerry told the committee. “I think you’ll be convinced.”
The closest the president has come to answering the question about acting, with or without the support of Congress, is this:
“I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture,” he said yesterday. “I think it’s very important that Congress say that we mean what we say. And I think we will be stronger as a country in our response if the president and Congress does it together.”
“As Commander-in-Chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security,” he said. “I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress. But I did not take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise; I think it’s important to have Congress’s support on it.”
The other factor to be considered is that Congress stands little to lose if it is overridden. Public opinion of the institution could not fall much lower. With the president’s job approval sliding into the low 40s in Gallup Poll tracking, public opinion of Congress stands at an average of 15.5 percent in several polls (The surveys range from 11 to 21 percent.)
While there appears to be divided public sentiment for an action limited to the launching of cruise missiles, public opinion largely runs against U.S. action in Syria. Eight in 10 Americans surveyed also say the president should have congressional approval if he acts — which could leave Obama very much on his own in keeping “the word of the United States” if he must do so alone.
All this makes congressional approval important, yet, potentially optional.