Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking. On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines. Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.
In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated US attack against Syria. Obama hadn't, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the US would "go it alone" in punishing Bashar al-Assad's regime for its bad behavior. Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of "the world's oldest constitutional democracy," he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.
Obama thereby brought to a screeching halt a process extending back over six decades in which successive inhabitants of the Oval Office had arrogated to themselves (or had thrust upon them) ever wider prerogatives in deciding when and against whom the United States should wage war. Here was one point on which every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush had agreed: on matters related to national security, the authority of the commander-in-chief has no fixed limits. When it comes to keeping the country safe and securing its vital interests, presidents can do pretty much whatever they see fit.
Here, by no means incidentally, lies the ultimate the source of the stature and prestige that defines the imperial presidency and thereby shapes (or distorts) the American political system. Sure, the quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are classy, but what really endowed the postwar war presidency with its singular aura were the missiles, bombers, and carrier battle groups that responded to the commands of one man alone. What's the bully pulpit in comparison to having the 82nd Airborne and SEAL Team Six at your beck and call?
Now, in effect, Obama was saying to Congress: I'm keen to launch a war of choice. But first I want you guys to okay it. In politics, where voluntarily forfeiting power is an unnatural act, Obama's invitation qualifies as beyond unusual. Whatever the calculations behind his move, its effect rates somewhere between unprecedented and positively bizarre—the heir to imperial prerogatives acting, well, decidedly unimperial.
Obama is a constitutional lawyer, of course, and it's pleasant to imagine that he acted out of due regard for what Article 1, Section 8, of that document plainly states, namely that "the Congress shall have power… to declare war." Take his explanation at face value and the president's decision ought to earn plaudits from strict constructionists across the land. The Federalist Society should offer Obama an honorary lifetime membership.
Of course, seasoned political observers, understandably steeped in cynicism, dismissed the president's professed rationale out of hand and immediately began speculating about his actual motivation. The most popular explanation was this: having painted himself into a corner, Obama was trying to lure members of the legislative branch into joining him there. Rather than a belated conversion experience, the president's literal reading of the Constitution actually amounted to a sneaky political ruse.
After all, the president had gotten himself into a pickle by declaring back in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad would cross a supposedly game-changing "red line." When the Syrians (apparently) called his bluff, Obama found himself facing uniformly unattractive military options that ranged from the patently risky—joining forces with the militants intent on toppling Assad—to the patently pointless—firing a "shot across the bow" of the Syrian ship of state.
Meanwhile, the broader American public, awakening from its summertime snooze, was demonstrating remarkably little enthusiasm for yet another armed intervention in the Middle East. Making matters worse still, US military leaders and many members of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were expressing serious reservations or actual opposition. Press reports even cited leaks by unnamed officials who characterized the intelligence linking Assad to the chemical attacks as no "slam dunk," a painful reminder of how bogus information had paved the way for the disastrous and unnecessary Iraq War. For the White House, even a hint that Obama in 2013 might be replaying the Bush scenario of 2003 was anathema.
The president also discovered that recruiting allies to join him in this venture was proving a hard sell. It wasn't just the Arab League's refusal to give an administration strike against Syria its seal of approval, although that was bad enough. Jordan's King Abdullah, America's "closest ally in the Arab world," publicly announced that he favored talking to Syria rather than bombing it. As for Iraq, that previous beneficiary of American liberation, its government was refusing even to allow US forces access to its airspace. Ingrates!
For Obama, the last straw may have come when America's most reliable (not to say subservient) European partner refused to enlist in yet another crusade to advance the cause of peace, freedom, and human rights in the Middle East. With memories of Tony and George W. apparently eclipsing those of Winston and Franklin, the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's attempt to position the United Kingdom alongside the United States. Parliament's vote dashed Obama's hopes of forging a coalition of two and so investing a war of choice against Syria with at least a modicum of legitimacy.
When it comes to actual military action, only France still entertains the possibility of making common cause with the United States. Yet the number of Americans taking assurance from this prospect approximates the number who know that Bernard-Henri Lévy isn't a celebrity chef.
John F. Kennedy once remarked that defeat is an orphan. Here was a war bereft of parents even before it had begun.
Whether or Not to Approve the War for the Greater Middle East
Still, whether high-minded constitutional considerations or diabolically clever political machinations motivated the president may matter less than what happens next. Obama lobbed the ball into Congress's end of the court. What remains to be seen is how the House and the Senate, just now coming back into session, will respond.
At least two possibilities exist, one with implications that could prove profound and the second holding the promise of being vastly entertaining.
On the one hand, Obama has implicitly opened the door for a Great Debate regarding the trajectory of US policy in the Middle East. Although a week or ten days from now the Senate and House of Representatives will likely be voting to approve or reject some version of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), at stake is much more than the question of what to do about Syria. The real issue—Americans should hope that the forthcoming congressional debate makes this explicit—concerns the advisability of continuing to rely on military might as the preferred means of advancing US interests in this part of the world.
Appreciating the actual stakes requires putting the present crisis in a broader context. Herewith an abbreviated history lesson.
Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would employ any means necessary to prevent a hostile power from gaining control of the Persian Gulf. In retrospect, it's clear enough that the promulgation of the so-called Carter Doctrine amounted to a de facto presidential "declaration" of war (even if Carter himself did not consciously intend to commit the United States to perpetual armed conflict in the region). Certainly, what followed was a never-ending sequence of wars and war-like episodes. Although the Congress never formally endorsed Carter's declaration, it tacitly acceded to all that his commitment subsequently entailed.
Relatively modest in its initial formulation, the Carter Doctrine quickly metastasized. Geographically, it grew far beyond the bounds of the Persian Gulf, eventually encompassing virtually all of the Islamic world. Washington's own ambitions in the region also soared. Rather than merely preventing a hostile power from achieving dominance in the Gulf, the United States was soon seeking to achieve dominance itself. Dominance—that is, shaping the course of events to Washington's liking—was said to hold the key to maintaining stability, ensuring access to the world's most important energy reserves, checking the spread of Islamic radicalism, combating terrorism, fostering Israel's security, and promoting American values. Through the adroit use of military might, dominance actually seemed plausible. (So at least Washington persuaded itself.)
What this meant in practice was the wholesale militarization of US policy toward the Greater Middle East in a period in which Washington's infatuation with military power was reaching its zenith. As the Cold War wound down, the national security apparatus shifted its focus from defending Germany's Fulda Gap to projecting military power throughout the Islamic world. In practical terms, this shift found expression in the creation of Central Command (CENTCOM), reconfigured forces, and an eternal round of contingency planning, war plans, and military exercises in the region. To lay the basis for the actual commitment of troops, the Pentagon established military bases, stockpiled material in forward locations, and negotiated transit rights. It also courted and armed proxies. In essence, the Carter Doctrine provided the Pentagon (along with various US intelligence agencies) with a rationale for honing and then exercising new capabilities.