President Barack Obama's
decision to seek congressional approval before taking any military action against Syria is a wise move that not only will ensure input from the legislative branch but may help allay concerns that Washington is again pursuing a go-it-alone foreign policy.
Obama apparently has ruled out using ground forces against Syria, limiting U.S. response to missile action to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in a horrific chemical attack that the administration said killed 1,429 people, including 426 children. (Other estimates of the death toll are much lower, in the hundreds.)
Congress is on summer vacation and will not return to Washington until Sept. 9, which appears to rule out imminent action against Syria. Whether that also leaves open the possibility of averting military action entirely is uncertain.
By opting to bring Congress into the decision, Obama not only gives it a voice in whatever action is taken against Assad but, from a poilitical standpoint, he also avoids taking sole responsibility for the response to Syria.
There is more than a little element of a gamble in Obama's action. The administration apparently assumes that it can make the case for a punitive strike against Syria. What happens, however, if that proves to be a hard sell with Congress, whose membership includes many who are admantly anti-Obama? Is the president risking political humiliation on the scale of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was rebuffed by Parliament in his bid to back Washington, Britain's closest ally?
In asking for Congress to support him in holding Bashir Assad to account, Obama asked, "What message will be sent if a dictator can gas hundreds of children" while the international community does nothing in response. If the administration is unable to get congressional backing to act against Syria, the answer could be incredibly embarrassing.
Obama realizes that the American public, after nearly a dozen years of war on two fronts in the Middle East, is in no mood to began a potentially costly military engagement in a third location in the region. That's why there will be no "boots on the ground." What he apparently envisions is a short-lived campaign similar to the Clinton administration's action in Kosovo in the 1990s, or an even briefer response along the lines of the action he undertook against the Gadhafi regime during its final days in Libya in 2011.
At the same time, however, by bringing Congress into the decision process, he also runs the risk of having a deadline imposed on whatever military action is taken, ensuring that, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, any U.S. involvement in Syria is not open-ended.
There also is the risk of having Congress attempting to dictate terms of engagement. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who seem to enjoy pursuing their own freelance foreign policy, have already raised concerns about the limited nature of Obama's response to Syria.
The next few weeks may have an aura of deja vu to them. While the administration undoubtedly will try to distance the Syria situation from the run-up to the war in Iraq, memories of "weapons of mass destruction" and Saddam Hussein, another demonized dictator, will be unavoidable. We know, all too well, how that military engagement ended. Making the distinction that Syria isn't Iraq will be another part of Obama's hard sell.