By asking Congress for its approval for a military response to the nerve-gas attack in Syria last month, President Obama may be setting a lasting precedent. Since the end of World War II, United States presidents have charged into conflicts by ignoring Constitutionally required prior approval from lawmakers or by expanding a narrow agreement beyond reasonable interpretations.
In seeking authority from the House and Senate for what the Obama administration has said will be limited missile bombardments, the White House may set a standard that other administrations would stray from with difficulty. This could be the most lasting and important outcome of the Syrian conflict for this country.
The underlying question is why the administration waited this long to push for punitive strikes on Syrian government assets. The U.S. has held its fire while not only combatants but more than 100,000 civilians died in the conflict before the Aug. 21 gassing. Those killed by Bashar al-Assad’s conventional bombs and artillery are no less dead than those killed by nerve agents. Regardless of the result in Congress, however, the difference now is both moral and political.
The nations of the world, remembering perhaps World War I and the millions sent to Nazi ovens in World War II, are united in moral condemnation of the use of poison gas in wartime. Politically, Washington has its eyes on Iran, the Assad government’s chief foreign backer and a United States adversary for decades. Informed speculation is that Washington has grown nervous as Syrian government forces appeared to gain the upper hand; a victory for the Assad regime would be a win for Iran.
The United States has been faulted internationally for going it alone far too many times. Even with Congressional approval, an American strike in Syria would be outside the mutually agreed-upon rules of the United Nations, where a Security Council vote on a response to the conflict should be the final word. Mr. Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval should be followed by a diligent effort to work within the U.N. framework before any eventual action.