In reflecting on another military adventure in the Middle East, Winston Churchill wrote of the ill-fated Battle of Gallipoli of 1915-1916: “The terrible ifs accumulate.”
President Obama’s appeal to Congress for support for his military initiative in Syria prompts a slightly different assertion: The stubborn questions accumulate.
These questions persist after a hard week of presidential lobbying — from the Cabinet Room of the White House, where Mr. Obama invited congressional leaders at the beginning of this remarkable campaign, to hotel rooms in Sweden and Moscow, stops on the President’s G-20 trip that became war rooms in the effort to win backing in Congress to attack Syria.
All the meetings and phone calls may provide a tentative answer to the President’s quest, but had the deeply unsettling effect of raising these questions:
● Could Mr. Obama still move against Syria without congressional approval?
This question presents a political squeeze play. On one hand, by asking for congressional approval, the President is doing more than suggesting that support of a majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill is preferable to unilateral presidential action. He is saying it is essential, at least politically.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration argues that the executive branch retains constitutional authority to mount such an attack. All of which raises the next question:
● Why did the President take this gamble?
Having taken this gamble in this instance, Mr. Obama thus may be obliged to do so in the next instance.
That is more important than it may appear, for this precedent could undercut the President’s ability to mount a surprise attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities later. Mr. Obama no longer can say, in negotiations with Tehran, that nothing is off the table. A clandestine attack almost surely would be.
As for the historical view, presidential specialists have long monitored the executive branch’s grabs for power and Congress’s counterpunches. The creation of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger described as the “imperial presidency” was met, for example, by the War Powers Act of 1973. That restricted presidential action and has been opposed by every president since Richard Nixon. That prompts the next question:
● What will be the state of presidential war-making power post-Obama, and has he redrawn the parameters of his successors’ prerogatives?
The answer: Maybe. It is true that there have been only 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland served nonconsecutive terms and is counted twice, which is why Mr. Obama is referred to as the 44th president). It is also true that the presidency is cumulative. As in high school mathematics, you cannot take Algebra II without having mastered Algebra I.
And yet this is an ineluctable truth about American politics: Presidents reach back into history for power and authority only when it is in their interests to do so.
If Mr. Obama wanted to attack Syria without congressional authority, he could have cited Lyndon Johnson in the Dominican Republic or George H.W. Bush in Panama.
Mr. Obama also could cite the actions of two politically incorrect precedents, and presidents, James Polk in Mexico and Richard Nixon in Cambodia. The former would make the Democrats no friends among Hispanic voters. The latter is poison for a liberal Democrat who turned 13 only five days before Mr. Nixon resigned.
A safer example: Woodrow Wilson in Mexico in 1913, though Mr. Wilson is toxic among the sippers of political tea.
History is best used to understand the past and to explain the present. It’s a rear-view mirror, not a telescope, and hardly ever much help in predicting the future.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org