The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Opinion

September 6, 2013

Obama in very dangerous territory

(Continued)

The White House and its allies promptly reinforced those suspicions. “Congress is now the dog that caught the car,” former senior adviser David Axelrod tweeted Saturday. The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson quoted an unnamed aide making a similar point about congressional second-guessing: “We don’t want them to have their cake and eat it, too.”

Really? What is the president doing when he asserts the authority to carry out military strikes without congressional approval, says he has already decided on such action, and won’t address what he might do if Congress declines? Seems there’s an awful lot of cake-eating going on.

Having said he wanted an operation “limited in duration and scope,” the president presented Congress with a draft resolution breathtaking in its absence of limits. It would empower the president to use the military “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons” in Syria.

Whoa! No time frame. No ban on ground troops. Sen. Obama would never have voted for what President Obama proposes.

The White House no doubt figured that it should ask for the maximum authority possible rather than negotiating from a middle-ground position. But, like the seller of a house who initially prices it way too high, the administration may end up getting less than it might have with a more reasonable starting point.

Tuesday’s news was positive for Obama, with Republican and Democratic House leaders backing a military strike. Still, there remain three possible outcomes here, two terrible and one worrisome.

First, Congress balks and Obama backs down, shredding his remaining credibility but avoiding a constitutional and political showdown. Second, Congress balks and Obama proceeds nonetheless, enraging lawmakers and eroding what capacity remains for legislative accomplishment.

The third possibility — Congress agrees — is the preferable outcome, but not without some peril. Every such episode sets a precedent that presidents current and future must grapple with, if not obey, in managing the delicate constitutional balance between the congressional war power and the president’s role as commander in chief.

And future presidents will, similarly, be called on to explain any noncompliance with the Obama precedent. This may be good or bad, depending on whether you more fear a reckless president unbounded by congressional supervision, or a hamstrung president shackled by a dysfunctional Congress. But it is another reason why this last-minute move is so momentous.

Ruth Marcus’ email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

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