If life, death and destruction weren't at stake -- and they are -- President Obama's decision to go to Congress for his very own "Authorization to Use Military Force" (AUMF) authorizing an attack on Syria would be an occasion to break out the popcorn and enjoy the political spectacle. This should be a doozy of a political fight and citizen agitation can play a role in it.
My immediate reaction to the news was that we are seeing a break from the practice of US Presidents ever since we became top world empire after World War II. Mostly they shoot first and get Congressional endorsement later, if at all. Choosing to go to Congress before initiating hostilities is a modern rarity, not entirely unprecedented, but still a frequently neglected nod toward democratic legality. Smart observers from several political camps agree:
Meanwhile the political ramifications of going for a Congressional vote are fascinating. As I keep remembering, President Obama probably owes his narrow victory over Hilary Clinton in the 2008 primary to some light-weight remarks questioning the Iraq invasion before he was elected to the Senate. His opponents had voted to endorse that disaster; he had not. Democrats with ambitions for higher office will take note. A substantial fraction of the Democratic party base -- 50 percent perhaps? -- are instinctively opposed to wars of choice in far flung outposts of empire.
After Iraq and the festering sore in Afghanistan, the country is at large is deeply war weary and not easily sold on the need to slay foreign monsters in places they can't locate. Rand Paul and friends are reviving the classic Republican sort of isolationism, a gut revulsion to getting involved with "those foreigners" who are so often black or brown.
It doesn't help the President that his case for attacking Syria is both hypocritical and weak. Here's a summary from Mike Lofgren, a centrist former Congressional staffer who is disgusted with both political parties:
I see this morning that the President is signaling some willingness to accept limits on a Congressional AUMF. This is important. People of the United States need to understand that the "legal authority" under which our Presidents have been shooting people in countries with which we are not at war like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen as well as spying on the whole internet is the emotional Congressional vote after 9/11 for Bush's AUMF. I imagine many Congresscritters thought they were voting to kill Osama Bin Laden, not for permanent war across the globe against poorly defined "terrorists". If a broad measure comes out of Congress for Obama's AUMF, watch out for whether it can be twisted to endorse war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and against Iran. Emptywheel has more.
Naturally the President will pull out all the stops to round up votes and I wouldn't bet against him. The guy has shown few political skills beyond winning elections (okay, I'll credit him with Obamacare, something that may work) but he enjoys very competent Congressional leadership in his own party. This will be one of those times when this San Franciscan is without representation in Congress; Nancy Pelosi can be counted on to round up votes for the President, regardless of her constituents' antiwar sentiments or even any skepticism of her own.
But many Congresspeople will be far more open to constituent views than mine. It's time to get on the phone -- if you don't already know how to call your member, click here.