WASHINGTON, D.C.: After staring deep into his political soul over Syria, Barack Obama blinked.
Stunning his advisors, his opponents, and the rest of the world, Obama chose to rein in his own power, and asked Congress to authorize a military intervention he had been set to wage alone.
Senior aides say Obama took the momentous decision alone on Friday evening, then explained it in a heart to heart with his chief of staff Denis McDonough.
Before then, the spin had been that Obama had the legal and moral right to strike President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to punish a horrific chemical weapons attack.
But Obama was out on a limb—potentially defying public opinion and the United Nations, deserted by America’s best friend, Britain.
By stopping at the brink, Obama will face claims he is weak, does not make good on his threats and presides over a feckless foreign policy.
But acting alone would have repudiated one of the central principles that got him elected—the idea that imperial presidents should not plunge into foreign quagmires with their authority unchecked.
In 2007, Obama, a former constitutional law professor criticized former President George W. Bush for endless, unaccountable wars.
“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” he told The Boston Globe.
But six years on, Obama was on the cusp of ordering cruise missile strikes in Syria, while bypassing Congress, on the basis of a fragile case that last week’s attack posed an immediate threat to US security.
At the heart of Obama’s decision was his presidential legacy, aides said.
The president, who brought US troops home from Iraq, and is doing likewise on Afghanistan, wants to leave office having led his country away from permanent war.
For liberals, his drone war and spy agency snooping had already tarnished that legacy.
Obama had publicly wrestled with the contradictions of his position all week but no one in his inner circle urged the president to go to Congress on Syria, aides said.
And several senior national security aides initially opposed Obama’s decision.
Politically, the move could widen the political box on Syria which Obama made for himself.
By declaring the use of chemical weapons by Syria would cross a US red line, he had put his credibility on the line.
Now, Obama is effectively challenging every member of Congress to stand up for the principle that dictators cannot trash international norms and use chemical weapons.
Obama said Saturday he was “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.”
The president, who maintains he did have the constitutional authority to act alone, has effectively called the bluff of critics who demanded he give Congress the chance to debate Syria.
“Big move by [Obama]. Consistent with his principles. Congress is now the dog that caught the car,” said the president’s political guru, David Axelrod on Twitter.
Now if he can persuade Congress to back him, he will build a firm political base, a factor noted by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.
“The President’s role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress,” McConnell said.
Should things end up going wrong in Syria, Obama, while knowing the buck stops with him, will also effectively share the blame.
Obama did not seek authorization for the operation which ousted Moamer Kadhafi in Libya—and faced a firestorm of criticism from Republicans over the subsequent attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, alone.
The president appears to have calculated that while he could go to war without a UN mandate—to do so without the endorsement of Congress and defying war weary public opinion, would be a political step too far.
His decision however brings huge risks.
Obama has an estranged relationship with Republicans in Congress and risks suffering the same fate as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who lost his own vote on authorizing military action.
Conservatives in the House of Representatives may relish a chance to paralyze him abroad, as they have at home.
Obama however will argue that rejecting military action would send a terrible message to dictators like Assad, and as Iran watches how Washington enforces red lines.
There are also international implications.
His move will likely be seen in the Middle East as evidence of vacillation from a president who has made no secret for his distaste for foreign entanglements.
Assad’s government was already buoyed by Britain’s capitulation—the idea that Obama could also be repudiated will spark delight in Damascus.
Senior aides said however, that one factor easing Obama’s decision had been that he was assured by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that delaying action would not reduce its effectiveness.