President Obama, who unilaterally authorized a full air campaign in Libya in 2011, is taking a different approach this time with Syria — mindful both of the political price he paid for that earlier effort and of the far more thorny questions involved in attacking the Assad regime.
Since he made clear his intention to retaliate against Syria for what he says is clear evidence of an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, Mr. Obama had been priming the country for a unilateral decision to take military action.
But over the last 48 hours he saw growing resistance in Congress, he lost his chief international partner when the British Parliament rejected joining in any military action, and he realized he wouldn’t be able to get U.N. backing.
Faced with the choice of going it truly alone, he instead decided to throw the issue to Congress, asking them to share responsibility for the decision.
“I’m also mindful that I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” Mr. Obama said from the White House Rose Garden. “We’ve heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree.”
The decision marks the latest twist in the president’s views of his own powers — though in his remarks he said he believes he does have the authority to launch attacks, but he acknowledged his hand is strengthened if he does have congressional backing.
His chances for success in Congress are likely good. Much of the opposition he has faced in recent days was not to strikes themselves, but rather to going about it without first coming to Congress.
“The president made a strong case today, and wisely chose to seek congressional support, even though he believes he is not required by law to do so,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said after the speech. “A congressional vote to authorize the use of force would strengthen the president’s decision to take military action.”
Ever since he signaled his intention to strike, the president has faced a series of setbacks, in addition to Congress’s reluctance. The U.N. has pleaded for time to let its inspectors finish their investigation into the attacks, Britain has rejected joining a military effort, and Mr. Obama has been reminded of his own previous stance on unilateral action.
In a response to a questionnaire from the Boston Globe during the 2008 campaign Mr. Obama said: “The president does not have the power, under the constitution, to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Mr. Obama isn’t the only high-ranking official who was opposed to unilateral strikes in the past.
Then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden, who is now Mr. Obama’s vice president, said during the 2007 campaign that he would lead the charge to impeach President George W. Bush if he bombed Iran without first gaining congressional approval.
Two years ago Mr. Obama ignited a constitutional crisis when he committed U.S. troops to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, without congressional approval.
The House held several votes but could not reach a consensus on whether to authorize or to block that action, and Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi was ousted before a court challenge to Mr. Obama’s policy was heard.
Still, Mr. Obama’s decision cost him support from some of his liberal base.