From a political standpoint, seeking congressional approval for a limited military strike against the Syrian regime, as President Barack Obama on Saturday announced he would do, made lots of sense. And let's be clear, this call has everything to do with political considerations, and close to nothing to do with a newfound commitment to constitutional fidelity.
The first reason is eminently local. Obama has proved perfectly willing to exercise military force without an express authorization, as he did in Libya -- just as he has expanded and drawn down military forces in Afghanistan, withdrawn from Iraq, significantly expanded the use of drone strikes, and waged a largely clandestine war on terrorism with little congressional involvement. The totality of Obama's record, which future presidents may selectively cite as precedent, hardly aligns with a plain reading of the war powers described in the first two articles of the constitution.
Obama isn't new in this regard. Not since World War II has Congress declared a formal war. And since at least the Korean War, which President Harry Truman conveniently called a "police action," commanders-in-chief have waged all sorts of wars -- small and large -- without Congress's prior approval.
Contemporary debates about Congress's constitutional obligations on matters involving war have lost a good deal of their luster. Constitutional law professors continue to rail against the gross imbalances of power that characterize our politics, and members of whichever party happens to be in opposition can be counted on to decry the abuses of war powers propagated by the president. But these criticisms -- no matter their interpretative validity -- rarely gain serious political traction. Too often they appear as arguments of convenience, duly cited in the lead-up to war, but serving primarily as footnotes rather than banner headlines in the larger case against military action.
Obama's recent decision to seek congressional approval is not going to upend a half-century of practice that has shifted the grounds of military decision-making decisively in the president's favor, any more than it is going to imbue the ample war powers outlined in Article I with newfound relevance and meaning. For that to happen, Congress itself must claim for itself its constitutional powers regarding war.
Obama did not seek Congress's approval because on that Friday stroll on the White House lawn he suddenly remembered his Con Law teaching notes from his University of Chicago days. He did so for political reasons. Or more exactly, he did so to force members of Congress to go on the record today in order to mute their criticisms tomorrow.
And let's be clear, Congress -- for all its dysfunction and gridlock -- still has the capacity to kick up a good dust storm over the human and financial costs of military operations. Constitutional musings from Capitol Hill -- of the sort a handful of Democrats and Republicans engaged in this past week -- rarely back the president into a political corner. The mere prospect of members of Congress casting a bright light on the human tolls of war, however, will catch any president's attention. Through hearings, public speeches, investigations, and floor debates, members of Congress can fix the media's attention -- and with it, the public's -- on the costs of war, which can have political repercussions both at home and abroad.