For a man who is often so Hamlet-like he seems he should be attending meetings in a black velvet doublet and whose Syria policy in particular seems to have been defined primarily by actions not taken and decisions not made, Barack Obama made one of the most profound and momentous decisions of his presidency on Saturday.
By announcing that he would require congressional approval before taking action against Syria's regime for gassing its own people, he took a step that seemed certain to have multiple, potentially profound ramifications. Here are just five:
1. A Syria attack isn't a sure bet.
Military action against Syria that seemed a "certainty" on Friday is no longer assured. And if air strikes do take place, their delay -- despite Obama's protestations to the contrary -- make them likely to be less effective. While the president, and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry in his effective remarks on Friday, have made a compelling case for American action in Syria, one can never underestimate this Congress's ability to find reasons for inaction, partisanship, or unproductive caviling. The far right and left of the respective parties are disinclined toward intervention. The more hawkish are disinclined toward actions that are too limited. And many Republicans are disinclined to do anything that might help Obama. What is more, developments in the interim -- like hesitation by other allies -- could make the United States appear more isolated or the likely impact of attacks seem less desirable. All these things could contribute to a "no" vote that would make it very difficult for the president to reverse course and take action anyway.
If the administration persuades Congress to support military action, it will be seen as a victory for the president, to be sure. But it may also have given the Assad regime another two or three weeks to redeploy assets and hunker down -- so that the kind of limited attack currently envisioned has even more limited consequences.
2. Red lines ain't what they used to be.
The president has hemmed and hawed regarding his supposed "red line" on chemical weapons use yet again, further undercutting his credibility. When Obama first suggested a red line, he cited movement or use of chemical weapons as being intolerable. But movement and use have, according to credible reports, occurred on multiple occasions since then -- and the United States took no action. This latest incident on August 21 was so egregious it was impossible to continue looking the other way. (And it was followed, apparently, by another on August 26.) Taking action seemed the only way to restore a sense that the president was a man who meant what he said. But then, late this week, as Britain balked at supporting Washington and domestic public opinion was seen to oppose any U.S. involvement in Syria, a spirit of hesitation seemed to grab the administration, culminating in Saturday's bombshell. Even if the attacks do take place, a new caveat will have been added to any future warning the president may choose to make: We will act -- if the most feckless Congress in memory chooses to go along with him.
3. He's now boxed in for the rest of his term.
Whatever happens with regard to Syria, the larger consequence of the president's action will resonate for years. The president has made it highly unlikely that at any time during the remainder of his term he will be able to initiate military action without seeking congressional approval. It is understandable that many who have opposed actions (see: Libya) taken by the president without congressional approval under the War Powers Act would welcome Obama's newly consultative approach. It certainly appears to be more in keeping with the kind of executive-legislative collaboration envisioned in the Constitution. While America hasn't actually required a congressional declaration of war to use military force since the World War II era, the bad decisions of past presidents make Obama's move appealing to the war-weary and the war-wary.