The Best Result From Congress: A 'No' Vote on Syria

"What I am opposed to is a dumb war."

One week ago at exactly this time -- it seems like a year -- the political world was on waning-moments countdown for the expected U.S. strike on Syria. Then about an hour later, President Obama took the surprising and highly welcome step of saying he would request approval from Congress. 

Let me spell out what was implicit in the items I was putting up just before and after the President's decision. You can find them all collected here, including the one by William Polk that continues to get a lot of attention. In the past few days, like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates (and for the same reason, the nightmare of actual article-writing), I've mainly been off line. Here is how things look to me a week further on:

  1. Obama's decision to involve Congress is the one clearly positive result of the horrific Syrian civil war. Whatever the reasons for his decision, it will help redress the decades-long distortion in executive and legislative power over military action.
  2. If I had a vote in Congress, I would vote No. I wasn't sure of that a week ago, as I'll explain below. But it is how I feel now because of this next reason #3.
  3. The President and many of his supporters have made an ironclad case that something should be done about the disasters and atrocities in Syria. But they have barely even tried to make a case that the right something is U.S. airstrikes without broad international support. Thus:
  4. Obama himself should hope that the Congress turns him down. A No vote would offer a legitimate if temporarily "humiliating" way out of what is looking more and more like an inexplicable strategic mistake.

Now the details.

On why Obama's decision was so valuable: I gave part of my explanation nine days ago. Garrett Epps explained the legal and historical reasoning around the same time. Zachary Karabell talked about the (wholesome) political implications yesterday. Many others have stressed the same thing. Overall: since at least the Vietnam era, people on all sides of American politics have lamented the seemingly unstoppable rise of an Imperial Presidency. Obama may not have had this in mind a month ago or even a week ago, but his decision will help brake (and break) that trend.

On why I was ready to hear his case, once he decided to make it to Congress: I had obviously been skeptical of unilateral military involvement Syria. A week ago we were headed toward action that was unilateral in two ways. One was the absence of UN, NATO, EU, UK, or other broad alliances that have been amassed for nearly all modern military strikes. The other was the domestic unilateralism of Obama's deciding this all on his own.

For me, the very fact of going to Congress made the plan presumptively more legitimate. If we went ahead, it would be a national decision, not one man's choice. A broader and more systematic U.S. process might in turn attract wider allied backing -- which in its turn could mark any action as a defense of truly international, not just American, norms. And the need to testify and debate in Congress, even this madhouse Congress, would ensure that basic questions about evidence, plans, and contingencies got asked and (presumably) answered. Therefore I thought a week ago that after hearing a case made, in these legitimizing circumstances, I could imagine being convinced that Congress should offer the support that the president, to his credit, had requested rather than assumed. Overall, we might have a least-worst outcome: bipartisan agreement, American leadership, reinforcement of the anti-chemical norm.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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