Of all the peculiar and revelatory moments in the Obama years – the one-party drive for health insurance, the near-death experiences over tax policies, the endless struggles over important budget priorities and routine extensions of Washington’s debt limit alike – this week may offer the most peculiar and most revelatory.
In an unexpected and largely inexplicable 11th-hour decision, President Barack Obama did what predecessors Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton likely would not have: ask for congressional approval of a military strike after reports that Bashar al-Assad had employed chemical weapons against rebels in the brutal civil war that has ravaged Syria.
In one stunning moment, astonishing to both supporters and detractors, Mr. Obama laid bare all the complexities of the American system and of the 44th president. Here is a Cook’s tour of some of them:
The President’s ambiguities. In contemplating an intervention that is “limited” – the phrase belongs to Mr. Obama’s 2008 election rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, but it aptly describes this initiative – the President is seeking a middle ground between ignoring the apparent sarin attack in the suburbs of Damascus two weeks ago and committing U.S. troops to toppling Mr. Assad.
In many U.S. national security episodes, splitting the difference has made for prudent policy (John F. Kennedy, Cuban missile crisis, 1962). But it hasn’t always worked (Kennedy, Bay of Pigs, 1961). After all, it was Kennedy who said that to govern was to choose (Independence Day speech, 1962).
The President’s identity. Woodrow Wilson, whose preoccupation was progressive reform at home, said at the outset of his administration a century ago that “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Before long, he was involved in upheaval in Mexico, and his second term was dominated by war in Europe and peace-treaty negotiations in Paris.
In this respect, Mr. Obama is another Wilson, only more so. He came to office with the vow to end U.S. entanglements overseas and to focus on domestic priorities, especially the economy. Nonetheless, Mr. Obama now is on the cusp of his fourth war, and the question of U.S. military intervention in Iran remains open. As a result, Mr. Obama is a war president and will be remembered and evaluated as such.
The President’s perspective. In an era when the land Syria now occupies was a battleground in the European balance of power, America’s founding fathers deliberately created a separation of powers for their new nation, encouraging the sort of tension between the legislative and executive branches that is being played out this month.
As a senator, Mr. Obama was skeptical of presidential prerogative in foreign affairs. But until last Friday, he insisted he had the authority, if not the moral obligation, to order military action in Syria. The stunning vote in the British House of Commons was unsettling to him, no doubt, but seldom has a vote in another legislative body so rocked a U.S. administration that it was moved to alter course so precipitously.
Then there is Mr. Obama’s record on Syria itself, which put the President on the side of the very skeptical to intervention that he now finds himself courting in a desperate (but surely not hurried – the vote isn’t until next week) effort to win support for his initiative. His rivals already are mocking his change of heart. With John F. Kerry as his secretary of state – Mr. Kerry said in 2004 that he voted for $87-billion in military appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it – he is vulnerable to charges that he was against involvement in Syria before he was for it.
A possible coda: Perhaps this change of perspective, almost certainly tied to the reports of sarin attacks, is an Obama asset, giving him real credibility as he lobbies members of Congress who have assailed his credibility for five years. If so, that is itself a weapon he has not deployed.
The President’s challenge. Mr. Obama faces the unusual phenomenon of having more support among his customary opponents than among his usual allies. This is not without precedent, however. In Lyndon Johnson’s drive to win approval for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, he won a larger percentage of Republican votes than Democratic in both the Senate and House.
Mr. Obama begins this fight with the vocal support of two Senate Republicans, Mr. McCain and Lindsay Graham, who faces a challenge from the right in South Carolina next year. The President also begins it with the opposition of Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian matinee idol and possible presidential candidate in 2016. It’s the lawmakers in the middle the President needs to enlist for his own middle course. This is the national security drama of the year, but given the threats remaining in Iran, it very likely will not be the biggest national security challenge of the Obama years.