President Barack Obama began discussions of a Syrian strike and from all media accounts, a strike seemed eminent. The president ran the risk of undergoing similar scrutiny he did after his actions against Libya. Even worse for the president, he risked being seen as a hypocrite because unlike former President George W. Bush, he didn’t seek congressional approval for the overthrowing of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.
On Saturday, Obama decided to ask Congress for their approval in a strike on Syria, which sabotaged the talking points of liberals and conservatives alike.
It may have also given the president the upper hand on the Syrian crisis.
Back in 2011, Obama’s team had tried to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from his presidency after his forces greeted the Arab Spring protests with violence, but little resulted in pressure from the United States.
Now Obama has again been tasked with how to handle Syria amid cries of “weakness” from conservative war hawks in the United States. Former Defense Secretary — and a major player in convincing the United States to invade Iraq despite no link to weapons of mass destruction — has called Obama the weakest president “in my adult lifetime.”
Former Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman harshly critiqued Obama’s decision to involve Congress — whom represent the will of American population, which the majority of don’t want to strike Syria — as “a very serious diplomatic and political fiasco reminiscent of the Carter days,” according to the New York Times. Gillerman also said there is concern in Israel on whether the United States can be trusted or not.
Despite the criticism Obama has received from both sides of the aisle, here are five reasons why Obama devised his political strategy to near perfection:
Obama was the first major entity within the United States calling for action against Syria. When he called for this, he did not seek Congressional approval. It wasn’t until 7 p.m. Friday ET. when his advisors were notified about his decision to seek congressional approval.
By coming out in front in favor of a military strike against Syria Obama is viewed as taking the first step toward accomplishing what he and other leaders say is a humanitarian effort against a regime that gassed its citizens (many of them being children).
This scenario is in stark difference to what Obama would have been confronted with if he had chosen to seek congressional approval from the start. If he had done that, the president would be in a tougher situation. He would immediately be seen as soft on terror and wouldn’t have his “I was this close to attacking Syria” defense like he currently does.
By seeking congressional approval after first making a hardline stance against al-Assad, Obama is putting the onus on Congress to become involved in a situation that will likely be met with fierce opposition and support. This decision also puts members of Congress at risk of losing seats in 2014. By seeking congressional approval, members of Congress cannot justly critique the president for not going forward in striking Syria without their approval because well, that would mean they support an unconstitutional act.
Members of Congress will also have a difficult time referring to the commander-in-chief as weak because he can always rebut by reiterating that he wanted to strike Syria, but Congress convinced him to get them involved instead.
In a televised address in the Rose Garden on Saturday, Obama said, “We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.” This statement is what leads one to believe Obama wanted a debate to be had from the beginning, but is making it appear as though the American public and Congress had a role in the situation. Everybody wins, right? Not exactly because there’s a still a chance Obama will still strike Syria after a “debate” in order to make everyone complicit, instead of just he and his administration.
In deciding to go the congressional route with a possible Syrian strike, Obama leaves room for his Democratic supporters to draft legislation that either limits the president’s executive powers in war — hence diminishing America’s power to go to war without input from the American population — or prevents America from attacking Syria period. This way, if Obama ever does decide to not attack Syria but attempts other forms of diplomacy like sanctions, Obama has a clear alibi: The American people didn’t want me to do it.
With Israel being a major United States ally and having a bipartisan congressional lobby, it is important for the president and members of Congress to consider Israel’s concerns over al-Assad and Middle-Eastern unrest. By holding out and taking more time to consider a preeminent strike, Congress can delegate with Israeli officials and other allies in the Middle East before making a crucial decision on Syria.
House Republicans rarely back the president on any legislation, but with strong Israeli lobbying, the president has created a buffer of time to convince lawmakers to side with him. House Republican leaders John Boehner (R-Oh.) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have already backed the president’s plan as of Tuesday. Whether these key Republican backings were because of the Obama campaign’s “flood-the-zone” strategy, where he will continue to reach out to lawmakers — many of whom he has strained relationships with — in an attempt to convince them of his plan, or due to the influence of foreign lobbying remains unclear. However, the waiting period definitely did not hurt the president’s strategy.
Lastly, Obama’s decision to have Congress involved in a Syrian strike worked in his favor because he can now be seen as a sort of “kinder war hawk” than George W. Bush instead of a flat-out war dove. Liberals will be appeased for the most part because the president acted within the Constitution and seemed to carefully distance himself from the mistakes of the Iraq invasion. Conservatives will be assuaged if we don’t go to war because many of their leaders were vocally against Obama’s initial decision to attack al-Assad’s forces.
Moreover, if Obama doesn’t go to war, he’ll be viewed as siding with the Republicans whom initially decried Obama’s stance. He’ll also be able to win over the Democrats whom are more likely to avoid a Syrian intervention if they don’t have the president’s support.