If ever President Barack Obama needed an obstinate, contrarian Congress, he needs one now.
But it is time, too, for members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to set aside mindless bipartisanship as they consider the gravest of national decisions: attacking another country.
The president has properly decided to seek House and Senate endorsement of his decision to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons. The Syrian president and his armed forced are quite capable of murdering men, women and children – and the occasional combatant – without resorting to what was almost certainly some type of gas rocketed into the suburbs of his own capital two weeks ago.
Republican and Democratic congressmen briefed on the evidence have expressed little, if any, doubt that the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have convincingly reported the intelligence that supports a conclusion those munitions were used.
Rather, they question whether Assad’s latest outrage rises to the level of a security threat to the United States or, if not, whether his use of chemical weapons so violates international convention that he must be disciplined, and that we must be the disciplinarian.
With Great Britain on the sidelines after Parliament rebuked a call for intervention from Prime Minister David Cameron, only French President François Hollande has committed resources to operations against Syria.
No matter, President Obama has said he is willing to work solo in exacting retribution from Assad.
It will be far, far better if Congress is on board.
Although the U.S. Constitution gave war powers to the Congress, only 11 of the hundreds of military deployments undertaken over two centuries were sanctioned by declarations of war. Resolutions and lesser actions condoned many other adventures, but presidents have often exercised their own judgment.
The War Powers Resolution, enacted in 1973 as the Vietnam War neared an end, has no provisions that would constrain the president should he decide to act alone.
But a substantial number of congressmen from both parties have demanded an opportunity to weigh the evidence and the rationale for using force. Those of the right find anything the president does suspicious, his “red line” comments not theirs to redeem. Those on the left – indeed, most Americans – are war-weary. The vapid case for entering Iraq will not soon be forgotten.
So, what is it the president wants to achieve in Syria? What will constitute success? What failure?
Assad will remain; maybe chastened, maybe not, but sure to continue Syria’s civil war. Unfortunately, the coalition of opposing forces is so jumbled we cannot be certain the enemy of our enemy is not our enemy.
How far is the president willing to ratchet up the violence to deter further use of chemical weapons if the rest of the world is blind to the very real menace of their use? The American people deserve to know.
“We should have that debate,” the president said Saturday. We agree.