Will Obama strike Syria even if Congress votes no?

Such a move would be unprecedented

Boehner and Obama
(Image credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In what would be an embarrassing setback for President Obama, it seems entirely possible that Congress will refuse to authorize his request for a military strike against Syria. If the vote goes against him, will he order air strikes anyway?

So far, the president is being cagey.

At a news conference today at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, he said he doesn't want to "jump the gun" and speculate about the aftermath of a congressional no vote. But in the past he has said he has the authority to take action against the Syrian regime with or without congressional approval.

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It's true that modern presidents often don't ask for approval to carry out limited attacks. Reagan didn't get authorization for the 1983 invasion of Grenada or the 1986 bombing of Libya. Clinton didn't get permission from Congress in 1998 before launching cruise missiles at a suspected weapons facility in Sudan or before the Kosovo conflict. Obama himself didn't check with Congress before imposing a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of State, points out in the Washington Times that Democrats and Republicans typically take turns supporting and opposing congressional authorization, depending on which party has the presidency. Democrats angry over Vietnam pushed through the 1973 War Powers Act — which allows the president to order military actions only if their duration is less than 90 days — over the veto of President Nixon.

But these days, "Republicans who used to hate the War Powers Act's restrictions on presidential war-making powers now argue that authorization is legally required," says Holmes. "And Democrats who once clamored for authorizations over the Afghan and Iraq wars now assert Mr. Obama's right to bypass Congress."

But bypassing Congress is one thing. What if Obama were to order strikes after explicitly getting congressional disapproval? It's never been done. And Peter Baker in The New York Times says the White House believes it would be "almost unthinkable." He explains Obama's predicament:

As a practical matter, it would leave him more isolated than ever and seemingly in defiance of the public's will at home. As a political matter, it would almost surely set off an effort in the House to impeach him, which even if it went nowhere could be distracting and draining. [The New York Times]

So that's a no then. And some are arguing that the whole point of going to Congress was to obtain cover to do nothing.

Kimberley A. Strassel at The Wall Street Journal says Obama never wanted to strike Syria but got trapped into making a show because of his ill-judged decision to draw a "red line" on chemical weapons. That's why he punted to Congress, knowing that whatever it does, he's covered.

Should Congress oppose authorizing action against Syria, he can lay America's failure to honor his promises on the legislative branch. Obama aides insist that even if Congress votes no, the president may still act — though they would say that. The idea that Mr. Obama, having lacked the will to act on his own, would proceed in the face of congressional opposition is near-fantasy. [The Wall Street Journal]

So where would that leave the U.S. on Syria? Over at National Review, Victor Davis Hanson says that Obama "should quietly (i.e., don't blame Congress, the world, the public, etc.) back out of the bombing mode, more quietly continue the belated work of promoting a pro-Western resistance to Assad, mend fences with allies most quietly, and prepare very carefully (but without the bombast) for a real crisis on the near horizon."

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