I hate to admit it because it sounds cynical, but I’m not often surprised by what happens in Washington. After years of watching presidents, members of Congress and other powerful characters, one develops a feel for where decisions are going. Even “shocking” behaviors often turn out, upon reflection, to be consistent with what that person had been signaling earlier.
So it was, heading into last weekend.
It was assumed, after a drumbeat of talk about preparations for a military strike on Syria, after a passionate argument by Secretary of State Kerry, and after a careful explanation by President Obama that the use of a certain type of particularly lethal weapon required a response, that he would move to do just that. He told Gwen Ifill and me in an interview at the White House last Wednesday: “… we want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people — against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you’re also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop.”
We also knew warships were in place in the Mediterranean. The commanders on those ships believed an order to strike was imminent. One defense department official told CNN: “We were standing multiple watches. Everyone was pretty sure it was going to happen.”
But the president surprised just about everyone, even some of his closest advisers. The New York Times reported that when he summoned them into the Oval Office Friday night to tell them he wanted to seek congressional approval first, “the resistance … was immediate.”
Most of us are now still looking for a full explanation of why he did what he did. We’ve asked questions, understand the setback represented by the British Parliament’s “no” vote, and think perhaps this former constitutional law professor was troubled by the precedent a go-it-alone decision would create. We heard Mr. Obama say “… our democracy is stronger when the president and the people’s representatives stand together.”
But presidents going back more than half a century have taken much more sweeping military moves without first seeking blessings from Capitol Hill. Harry Truman circumvented Congress, calling the Korean War a “police action,” even though more than 35 thousand American men died there. Further, presidents as different as Johnson, Reagan and Clinton declared they did not need an OK from the legislative branch before they launched attacks in Vietnam, Grenada and Kosovo.
Despite overwhelming public opposition to military engagement in Syria, the White House insists that Mr. Obama will get the congressional support he says he wants. Skeptical Democrats are being warned that anything less would weaken him too much politically; Republicans are facing pressure to stand up for a strong American defense. If so, it’s certain there will be repercussions. There’s no way to predict how a vote of approval may affect military-related decisions by future presidents, or even by this one. And there’s even greater uncertainty about the toll that casting this vote will take on upcoming votes on crucial domestic issues like the federal budget and immigration.
No action in Washington, as in physics, occurs in a vacuum. As Newton taught us, there is always a reaction. Having been surprised by what the president announced Saturday, I’m as anxious as everyone else to see what the fallout is — overseas and here at home.