President Barack Obama's turnaround on Syria comes as a surprise, given his recent shows of disdain for Congress. Only a couple of months ago, Edward Snowden's revelations forced Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to admit that he lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee -- a felony punishable by five years in prison. But the confession of a crime didn't prompt the president to replace Clapper with a fresh face who might credibly join with Congress in cleaning up the NSA scandal.
Obama's next unilateralist display came in response to the military takeover in Egypt. The Foreign Assistance Act bars aid to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup." But even after Egyptian soldiers mowed down protesters, the White House insisted that it "is not in the best interests of the United States" to determine "whether or not a coup occurred." Despite protests from Capitol Hill, there is no sign that the president will heed the plain meaning of the statutory command.
As the drama shifted to Syria, presidential policy shifted in the opposite direction. This time, the United States would not be financing Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as he killed protesters in the street, but would be bombing Bashar al-Assad for gassing civilians. With Secretary of State John Kerry leading the charge, the world was bracing itself for news of the first airstrikes when Obama made his remarkable turn to Congress.
In a moment full of historical irony, Prime Minister David Cameron's defeat in the House of Commons was a precipitating cause of the president's agonizing reappraisal. For almost a thousand years, the British constitution excluded Parliament from declarations of war -- the king claiming this power as his "royal prerogative." Given George III's war against his rebellious colonists, this made it imperative for America's Founding Fathers to establish that their new president would play a very different role -- and that it would be up to Congress to make the ultimate decisions on war and peace.
Yet two centuries onward, it was the British Parliament that taught the imperial presidency a lesson. It was only in 2003 that Tony Blair decided that his adventure with George W. Bush required something more than a royal decree. To enhance his democratic legitimacy, he requested the formal approval of Parliament -- which was readily forthcoming since his party was in firm control of the House. But this time around, Cameron was at the head of a shaky Tory-Liberal coalition, which proved incapable of delivering the votes.
This put President Obama's push for a military response in Syria in the unlikely situation of falling far short of Bush-era benchmarks. Whatever the Iraq War's deficiencies under international law, Bush and Blair did manage to organize a formidable "coalition of the willing." Whatever lies Bush told the public about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, he did at least gain the consent of Congress. But once Britain dropped out, it was clear that Obama's international coalition was going to be far less substantial than the one that rallied behind Bush. And if Obama refused to gain congressional consent, he would have faced withering attack from both the left and right if his unilateral intervention misfired.
Obama showed a healthy instinct for political self-preservation in making his last-minute turnaround. But his act will have larger consequences than he intended. Perhaps he might have gained a quick-if-narrow victory if he had proposed a resolution to Congress that strictly limited his use of force to the narrow surgical strike that is his purported objective.