President Obama made the right call Saturday in announcing he would seek congressional approval for military action against Syria, even though he believes he has the right to act on his own.

As he said in explaining his unexpected decision, "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."

We'd argue the president had an actual obligation to go to Congress. The Constitution clearly bestows the power to make war on Congress, and a military strike on Syria -- even of limited duration and without troops on the ground -- is an indisputable act of war. So Congress should have a role in the decision unless the delay would put U.S. national security at risk, which is obviously not the case.

The incident in which Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons on Damascus suburbs, killing more than 1,000 people, is already nearly two weeks old. And it wasn't the first reported use of such weapons there. As Obama acknowledged Saturday, "our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."

So there is plenty of time for a congressional debate and vote.

We've made no secret of our skepticism regarding even limited military strikes meant to punish Assad for flouting international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. If the strike involves a few cruise missiles, for example, it's hard to see how it will affect the outcome of the Syrian civil war or even cause Assad to rethink his government's routinely barbaric conduct. Even if he swears off chemical weapons for a time, he will hardly stop slaughtering innocents in a ruthless attempt to remain in power.

If that is the case, U.S. action will have been largely symbolic.

A more sustained intervention that ends up affecting the civil war's outcome is a high-risk proposition, too, given uncertainty regarding which rebel faction would dominate a successor regime. And yet any congressional resolution is likely to give the president wide discretion in the scope of military action.

The Syrians are involved in a civil war. It is tragic and horrifying, and Assad himself is a mass murderer, but similar facts in many countries do not trigger U.S. intervention. Why in Syria?

To be sure, the president has an eloquent retort. "This attack is an assault on human dignity," he said. "It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.

"In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted."

Even skeptics of intervention must admit that Obama's impassioned argument is a serious one that cannot merely be dismissed. It deserves a debate in Congress. And if the president's view prevails there, at least then his hand will be strengthened for whatever comes next.

 

--The Denver Post, Sept. 1