The official “lesson” that the president’s words and choices are delivering is not one that actually elevates Congress back to its Article I level of authority. Rather, it’s one that treats Congress as a kind of ally of last resort, whose backing remains legally unnecessary for warmaking (as the White House keeps strenuously emphasizing, and as its conduct regarding Libya necessarily implies), and whose support is only worth seeking for pragmatic and/or morale-boosting reasons once other, extra-constitutional sources of legitimacy (the U.N. Security Council, Britain, etc.) have turned you down. The precedent being set, then, is one of presidential weakness, not high-minded constitutionalism: Going to Congress is entirely optional, and it’s what presidents do when they’re pitching wars that they themselves don’t fully believe in, and need to rebuild credibility squandered by their own fumbling and failed alliance management. What future White House would look at that example and see a path worth following?
Initially, I was positive about President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for a military attack on Syria. But after Obama and John Kerry’s continued insistence that they were not seeking authorization because they are constitutionally required to, and that a “no” vote does not bar them from attacking Syria, I began re-considering it.
With that in mind, it’s clear that the Obama administration hasn’t sought approval because they believe the executive branch shouldn’t be able to unilaterally initiate military action (Libya should make their beliefs on it very clear), but rather because they lost British support for the effort and would not be able to gain authorization from the U.N. Security Council, and need some kind of legitimacy. As Douthat says, seeking congressional authorization is only a last resort.
That’s not positive. It’s inept, and it’s infuriating.