To say that President Obama’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been controversial would be a gross understatement. He has managed the rare feat of pleasing no one before even deciding what response he will take. The latest chapter in this story has proven particularly inflammatory; Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a military strike has led to accusations that he is “abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief,” giving Assad “the opportunity to hide and protect his resources,” and of “cynically play[ing] politics with American credibility.” Yet while there may be bits of truth to these claims, when you look at Obama’s decision to go to Congress from the perspective of geopolitics it is clear it was not an admission of weakness or an attempt to avoid action — it was a strategic masterstroke.
This is because Obama is looking at the big picture. He is determined to make striking Syria about more than just human rights. It’s about the global reputation of the U.S., drawing a positive comparison against China and Russia, and retaining the ability to act against Iran in the years to come.
Obama knows that nothing damaged U.S. credibility in the past decade more than the war in Iraq. The use of deceit to unleash unilateral American power caused a huge backlash against American leadership. Obama wants to act in Syria, largely to uphold the credibility of the U.S. and the international system it leads, but he can’t let it look like a repeat of Iraq. Obama campaigned for the presidency on the promise to change how America engages the world and has proven extremely reluctant, outside of drone strikes and the Bin Laden raid, to act abroad unilaterally. Consequently, he wants as much support as possible for an attack on Syria, and unlike the intervention in Libya where NATO had approval from the UN Security Council to act and did so in conjunction with several Arab allies, this time around, the U.S. would be, at best, acting with just one significant partner, France. As such, Congress is the last available option to add credibility to a U.S. strike. It’s not a perfect solution, as Congress also voted to go to war in Iraq, but it’s better than Obama acting alone.
Obama is sensitive to the impact on America’s image because he knows that, unlike in 2003, there’s a growing alternative to American leadership from Russia and China. By going to Congress, Obama is not only trying to send a signal to the world that the U.S. is a responsible global leader, but that it is a preferable choice to a world run by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, where indifference to human rights and democracy would be the norm.
Of course, any U.S. attack on Syria would draw a powerful contrast to the apathy of Moscow and Beijing, but doing so with Congressional approval makes it even more potent. In this way, not only is the U.S. acting when no one else will, but it is acting as a democracy. Obama referenced exactly this point when he announced he would ask Congress to vote on intervention. He declared:
"But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress."
Last but not least, Obama knows that the real threat in the Middle East is Iran. Washington has been concerned about Tehran’s nuclear program for over a decade and has taken a variety of steps to ensure it does not lead to a bomb. However, if all else fails and years from now Obama needs to strike Iran, he is going to want Congressional backing for such a move. Striking Syria without first going to Congress could have poisoned the waters between the White House and Capitol Hill, making it less likely he would get Congress’ approval when he really needs it.
In sum, Obama is looking at Syria through a wide lens and sees not just a test of the U.S. and the global system of rules and norms it presides over, but also an opportunity to draw a positive comparison against China and Russia, and lay the groundwork for a united approach to Iran if military action is needed years down the road. By going to Congress for approval, Obama has managed to extract a few upsides to what had previously been a lose-lose situation for the U.S..
This is why it was a strategic masterstroke.