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Goldberg: If Obama is 'right' on Syria it is for only wrong reasons (column)

Asking Congress for war power is the best path, but president's bumbling is still doing damage

2:09 PM, Sep. 5, 2013  |  Comments
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The Germans seem to have coined a word for every dark emotion - schadenfreude (joy over someone else's misfortune), futterneid (envy over someone else's superior food), etc. - but I've been searching in vain for a Teutonic term for that annoyance one feels when someone agrees with you for the wrong reasons. Since I can't find it, I'll just make it up: zustimmenärger.

President Obama's decision to seek congressional approval for attacking Syria has my zustimmenärger levels in the red zone. Not so many of my friends on the right. While pretty much everyone across the ideological spectrum is shaking their heads at the amazingly amateurish way President Obama has handled Syria (even the famously pro-Obama foreign policy pundit and sometime Obama adviser Fareed Zakaria has called it "a case study in how not to do foreign policy"), the fact that Obama is finally seeking congressional approval for an act of war is being celebrated.

"Kudos to President Obama," my American Enterprise Institute colleague Timothy Carney writes in the Washington Examiner. More than 140 members of Congress demanded that Obama seek their approval before going to war, Carney notes. And, "to Obama's credit, he listened, promising Saturday to seek congressional authorization before attacking Syria."

But did he? It all depends on the meaning of "before," as Bill Clinton might say. Yes, the president said he would seek approval. But he didn't say he would abide by Congress' decision. Nor did he acknowledge that the Constitution requires him to. Secretary of State John Kerry said the day after Obama's announcement that, "we don't contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no," but he added the president retains the right to attack "no matter what Congress does."

Moreover, a White House aide tells the Washington Post that Obama's decision stemmed from frustration that if Obama acted without approval, Congress would be able to criticize the president's unilateralism while still getting the policy it preferred. "We don't want them to have their cake and eat it, too." Indeed, immediately after Obama's announcement, former Obama guru David Axelrod tweeted that "Congress is now the dog that caught the car."

Spite is not exactly synonymous with respect for constitutional principles.

More troubling - or damning - is the likelihood that Obama only decided to seek congressional approval after it became clear to him he couldn't get the support of the United Nations, the British or even the Arab League. According to the Wall Street Journal, he only started contemplating his stunning about face after he saw Prime Minister David Cameron's efforts fail so spectacularly in the British Parliament.

The Constitution doesn't grant Congress the sole power "To declare war," only after the president has exhausted all of his other options on the international stage.

Every now and then a blindfolded man can pin the tail on the donkey, but we rarely celebrate his unerring aim when he does. But it's worse than that, because the game, figuratively speaking, is not over. If Obama had sought congressional approval from the beginning, he would not have sown so much confusion among our adversaries and dismay among our allies. The Syrians and Iranians believe the president blinked. The Israelis, the Turks and the Saudis, to name a few, have fresh reason to doubt Obama's - and by extension, America's - resolve. The headline in the Times of Israel says it well: "Obama Shows Netanyahu Israel is Truly Alone."

So what happens next? If Congress votes no - a very real possibility - Obama will be left with the choice to abide by Congress or to flout it. If he abides by Congress then his "red lines" will be a bad joke and the Middle East will descend into even greater barbarity and chaos. If he defies Congress, we just might have the makings of a constitutional crisis.

President Obama thinks he has Congress in a box, but the reality is he put himself in one. Even if they grant him authority, Obama would be deluding himself to think that congressional authorization will absolve him from blame if the war on Syria goes badly. Just ask George W. Bush about that.

I believe presidents should ask Congress for the power to make war. But Obama's decision doesn't have me feeling vindicated. It has me feeling zustimmenärger.

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