Congratulations President Obama

By Jack Goldsmith
Saturday, August 31, 2013, 3:19 PM

I have been hard on the President – on this blog last week, and today in the NYT – for what just about everyone (except Philip Bobbitt) thought was going to be his strike in Syria without congressional authorization.  I was thus surprised, but very happily surprised, when the President announced this afternoon that he would seek congressional authorization for the strike.  I am still unconvinced that military action in Syria is a good idea.  And there will be those who complain that the President’s request to Congress harms presidential power, or hurts our tactical position vis a vis Syria (because of the delay, etc.), or reflects poor planning, and the like.

The President is indeed still in a pickle.  But in light of the constitutional questions, the lack of obvious support in the nation and Congress, and the risks of sparking a broader conflict in the Middle East, and for the other reasons I stated in my post last week, it would have been terrible for the President and the nation if he had engaged in strikes in Syria without seeking congressional approval.  The President stated the case for going to Congress well: 

But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.

In the coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every member with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America's national security. And all of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.

I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable. As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.

The President is taking a big risk here.  But he will be incomparably strengthened, legally and especially politically, if he is able to win congressional support.  And in any event his request for support from Congress he will force every member to be accountable, one way or the other, for what he does.  As did the two President Bushes when they sought authorization to invade Iraq, President Obama here leaves open the door for using military force independent of congressional authorization, and thus in theory if Congress declines to authorize force.  But he would be very hard-pressed to use force, I think, if Congress votes against it after a robust national debate.

In the NYT today I predicted that the President would be eating his words from the 2008 campaign trail to the effect that he needed congressional authorization for an intervention like the one planned for Syria.  I was wrong, and I am very happy to say that I am now eating my words.