President Barack Obama’s jaw-dropping decision over the holiday weekend to ask Congress for authorization to strike Syria was initially seen by some as a savvy political move, because it gives him political cover and puts Republicans in the hot seat.
But if it gives the president some short-term breathing room, it was just the sort of move that a weak political leader would make after days of saber-rattling and repeated assertions that he had the power to act and would do so if the "red line" that Obama once said existed was crossed.
If the president wasn’t willing to act unilaterally, as he certainly seemed to indicate that he would, then he should have used very different language in talking to Syria over the past few months. And if he had built a better relationship with the folks on Capitol Hill – in both parties – he might not have to worry how the vote will go.
Leaving aside the question of whether the U.S. should respond to the atrocities in Syria and the brutality of the regime, the administration’s performance has been nothing short of schizophrenic. Secretary of State John Kerry was hung out to dry by the president, and the administration’s decision-making process on Syria seems, well, incoherent.
Supporters of the president’s “strategy” argue that a vote to authorize military action will unite the country and strengthen the president’s hand. Of course, it won’t unite the country — a large minority of Americans will still oppose it even if the House authorizes action in a close vote — and the measure that Congress passes is likely to limit Obama’s range of actions, not empower him.
The worst case scenario for the White House — a “no” vote by either chamber of Congress — will put Obama in an even more uncomfortable position.
The president seems to think that he has wide latitude dealing with things like bombing Libya, enforcing existing federal laws and imposing regulations on business, but he needs to turn to Congress to give him cover on an admittedly difficult decision regarding Syria.
The bottom line on this mess seems pretty obvious: Obama’s about-face has to worry this country’s allies and embolden those who don’t have the democratic values and commitment to individual liberty that most Americans hold dear. And the world will wonder whether the president’s future comments on international issues constitute U.S. foreign policy or are merely the personal views of a president who has tied his own hands to act in the future.