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

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  • WILLIAM G. HOWELL is the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at the University of Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power, and co-author (with Saul Jackman and Jon Rogowski) of The Wartime President: Executive Influence and the National Politics of Threat.
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