Count on Congress

The Logic of Handing Syria Over to the Lawmakers

Early morning joggers run next to the Reflecting Pool in Washington, March 15, 2013.
Has Washington turned upside down? Early morning joggers run next to the Reflecting Pool in Washington, March 15, 2013. (Gary Cameron / Foreign Affairs)

The recent decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to seek congressional support for military action in Syria caught many, including some of his own advisers, off guard. The decision seemed not merely to violate to his immediate interests but also to contravene his own past practices. Rather than aberrational, however, the move reveals some longstanding truths about how the United States goes to war.

The first concerns Congress’ continuing relevance in military decision-making. Many analysts have long written it off. And to a certain extent, they have been right to do so. When it comes to foreign policy generally, and military action in particular, the president enjoys extraordinary power: power to unilaterally advance his own agenda; power with the public, which looks to him to chart foreign policy; and informational power, which allows the president to structure the terms and direction of any accompanying debate. Congress, meanwhile, can seem hamstrung and all but useless. The multiple veto points, partisan polarization, and pervasive gridlock predictably impede and distort even the most sober efforts to address real-world challenges.

Even so, in the domestic politics of war-making, it would be unwise to count Congress out. Obama did not have to seek congressional approval for military action in retaliation for the Assad regime’s recent alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people. But he did. And that was a prudent choice.

The advantages of consent will mostly matter in retrospect, not in the run-up to war. That is because, if Congress approves the military action, it cannot as easily criticize its effects. Just ask Secretary of State John Kerry, who stumbled through the 2004 campaign for the presidency trying to explain why he was for the Iraq War before he was against it. In the aftermath of a military action, members of Congress can use hearings, investigations, floor debates, and media appearances to make a case that a military venture failed outright or created new problems. In extreme cases, as occurred in the latter stages of the Vietnam War, all this may lay the groundwork for legislative action against the president. But even in the absence of a formal rebuke, congressional criticisms can turn the public against the president and his party, signal to U.S. allies and enemies a lack of resolve for continued military action, and upend congressional action on other aspects of the president’s policy agenda.

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