His two-pronged approach to the issue, as described in his remarks today, are one, to communicate his resolve to apply harsh consequences to the Assad regime for the murder of over a thousand of its citizens with poison gas, consequences in the form of missile strikes; and two, to acquiesce to demands that he bring the US Congress into the decision-making process.
You may not agree with the first part. Obama's position is that actions taken by Assad in Damascus, using chemical weapons against Syria's own civilian population, including hundreds of children, constitute crimes against humanity so horrific and unique from other types or levels of warfare, that they cannot be ignored. The President was clear he believes we have an imperative to respond to these actions, separate altogether from any consideration of intervention in Syria's civil war, and separate from the question of regime change.
You may feel otherwise. But his decision to withhold an executive order to strike unless and until he has the full support of Congress is beyond reproach. For those of us who feel on the one hand both skeptical and disempowered by the prospect of another American president making a case for military action, but on the other hand cognizant that what happened in Damascus cannot be ignored, Obama has presented what is perhaps the only acceptable proposition: if we're going to respond to this somehow, let's decide how to do it together.
How else would you want a president to resolve a question like this, other than each of us meeting personally with him at the White House to explain exactly what we want to have done?
Reports from behind the scenes at the White House tell us that over the last 24-48 hours the debate between the President's Cabinet members, national security team and other staff and advisers has been robust, and there was significant sentiment against seeking the support of Congress before taking action. I've read about similar processes occurring in this administration's Oval Office and Situation Room deliberations during the couple of days leading up to the decision to start air strikes over Libya, and before giving the "go" to authorize the operation to get bin Laden. This President apparently demands a frank diversity of opinion, and afterwards may make a decision flouting the advice of even his closest advisers. In this case it appears there was much agreement about the need to go forward with strikes against Syria, but a variety of points of view about how far to bring Congress into the process. Obama went with the approach that relinquishes ultimate control of the final decision. It should be noted that since Congress does not reconvene until September 9, and he is not asking them to return early to address this, he has chosen not to cheapen his argument for consequences for Assad by implying there is a crucial need to act immediately. He has also clearly not agreed to seek the approval of Congress as a way to shrink from stating his OWN opinion - his point of view could not be clearer: we should launch missiles at military targets in Syria in order to enforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons.
Whatever you think of that, now your argument must go to Congress. And make no mistake, members of Congress do read your letters and emails, and do track your phone calls. Whether the legwork is done by staff, and commentary is sorted into piles of rough agreement, or your communication is discovered to be so compelling, articulate or pertinent that it lands on the Congressperson's desk, none of them are ignored (see my post "Yes, They Do Read Your Letters!" 11/19/11.) Cynicism about whether they do that to inform campaign messaging or whether they actually care is understandable. But the argument "they don't care what I have to say" is drastically undermined if you don't say anything. Over the next ten days, you can spend many hours debating this on Facebook, at the dinner table, or in your own head, but remember that the "representative" part of representative democracy doesn't work without your direct participation. So take ten minutes out of your facebook time between now and the 9th to contact your Senators, www.senate.gov, and another ten to weigh in with your Representative at www.house.gov.
MSNBC correspondent Chuck Todd, coming on camera to comment after the President's statement, pointed out how extraordinary it is for Obama to make a decision to seek the approval of Congress before taking action. Todd noted that for roughly 40 years, since Dick Cheney was pulling strings in the Ford administration, Presidents have continuously sought to concentrate ever more power in the Executive Branch. The fact that Barack Obama just took a stand in another direction reminds me once again that we are watching a presidency with deep historical significance.
From today's remarks, "...but, having made my decision as Commander in Chief...I am also mindful that I am 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."
- Julie Boler