It was a big surprise for just about everyone. When the White House announced that President Barack Obama would address the nation from the Rose Garden Saturday afternoon, most expected that he was about to give the go-ahead for the long-threatened punitive strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in retaliation for his alleged chemical weapons attacks against his civilian population.
But it was not the commander-in-chief who stood before the cameras on a bright afternoon. It was an embattled politician, isolated both at home and abroad.
“I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama said. “But having made my decision as commander-in-chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy … And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.”
The reaction from Congress and the public was swift and surprisingly harsh.
Rep. Peter T. King, a Republican from New York, issued a scathing statement immediately following the Rose Garden speech, taking the president to task for “abdicating his responsibility on Syria and undermining the power of future presidents.”
“The president doesn’t need 535 Members of Congress to enforce his own redline,” King added.
That, however, is a matter of opinion. The Constitution specifically vests the power to declare war in Congress; the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which is often used to justify the president by-passing the legislature, has been held by the executive branch to be unconstitutional, and the courts have refused to consider its implications.
On Sunday, the Obama administration worked to make a stronger case for military action in Syria. In interviews on several TV talk shows, Secretary of State John Kerry said new evidence shows sarin nerve gas was used in the Aug. 21 attacks in a Damascus suburb, which US intelligence says claimed more than 1,400 lives.
"This is squarely now in the hands of Congress," Kerry told CNN, saying he had confidence "they will do what is right because they understand the stakes."
Congress had in fact been griping for days, on both sides of the aisle, that they were not being given their constitutional right to vote on military intervention in Syria.
On Thursday a group of Democratic representatives sent a letter to the White House urging that the president seek congressional authorization for the use of military force before drawing the United States “into an unwise war.”
In another letter, a group of 140 lawmakers insisted that any action against Syria without congressional approval would violate the Constitution.
Justin Amash, republican congressman from Michigan, did tweet “Thank you, Mr. President,” immediately after the Rose Garden speech, but issued a rather snide follow-up:
It's unfortunate that it's gotten to the point where I have to thank the President for following the Constitution & the law.
— Justin Amash (@repjustinamash) August 31, 2013
According to Amash, a prolific Tweeter,
“Pres Obama hasn't come close to justifying war in #Syria. I look forward to this debate. Pres must comply w/ vote of Congress; not optional.”
But Congress may not be so thrilled with their new-found responsibility, and the Twittersphere was full of acerbic comments.
David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, perhaps said it best:
Big move by POTUS. Consistent with his principles. Congress is now the dog that caught the car. Should be a fascinating week!
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) August 31, 2013
David Sessions, a blogger for The Daily Beast, was a bit more colorful:
Everyone in Congress, in unison: "Oh shit."
— David Sessions (@davidsess) August 31, 2013
Obama will undoubtedly have a tough time getting cooperation from his legislature; the issue of Syria has been a divisive one, and cuts across party lines.
There are a certain number of Republicans, including House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers, who support military intervention.
He issued a statement Saturday that indicates solidarity with the president’s position.
“Now that the regime has crossed our red line regarding the use of chemical weapons, we must carefully consider whether the credibility of the United States necessitates military action to enforce that position,” he said.
Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, is also on board.
But there are Republicans who will oppose the president no matter what, and a growing number of Democrats who oppose military action.
In any case, the legislature will no longer have the luxury of criticizing and finger pointing; they will have to step up and take the heat right along with the president.
Many observers think that that British Prime Minister David Cameron and the UK parliament had a hand in Obama’s decision.
On Thursday night, Cameron lost a vote in parliament, effectively stopping Britain from standing with the president on Syria.
"The British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action," Cameron said following the vote. “I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”
Following Obama's speech Saturday, Cameron tweeted:
I understand and support Barack Obama's position on #Syria.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) August 31, 2013
The White House has declined to say whether Obama would go ahead with military strikes on Syria if Congress votes down his request.
Both Obama and his top diplomat Kerry, however, insist they will listen to the American people.
“I believe, as President Obama does, that it is also important to discuss this directly with the American people,” Kerry said Friday. “That’s our responsibility, to talk with the citizens who have entrusted all of us in the administration and the Congress with the responsibility for their security.”
The results are not encouraging. Polls show Americans overwhelmingly oppose unilateral presidential action in Syria.
This prompted yet another bitter reaction, this time from author and journalist Nicholas Kristof.
Feels as if Obama boxed himself in, then was alarmed by polling. Seeking Congress' OK feels poll driven, not policy driven
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) August 31, 2013
That said, now it's Congress that is boxed in, no?
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) August 31, 2013
Certainly Obama has given himself some breathing room.
Neither the president nor Speaker of the House John Boehner chose to ask Congress to suspend their recess to consider Syria. In fact, debate will not begin for more than a week, as Boehner made clear in a statement released Saturday:
“In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”
Axelrod is right: it should be a fascinating week.