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Obama Was Right to Ask for Congress' Blessing on Syria

The biggest burden of being president is surely having to make decisions that will lead to people being killed and maimed in war: American soldiers who die decades before their time, innocent civilians in enemy countries, even enemy soldiers who rarely bear any moral responsibility for the decisions that make their countries our enemies.

In the HBO series, "Veep," Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a vice president who is responsible for persuading the president to attempt a daring and successful hostage rescue mission. Amidst the celebrations, she asks about casualties and is told that the only American casualty was a single soldier who lost a leg. She turns ashen: that man's leg suddenly makes it all seem real. But it's just a moment—this is a comedy show.

The Syria situation is being presented in the media mostly in conventional terms. The president wants to take some military action: Does he need congressional approval? Can he get it? Will the allies get behind him? If he gets approval and proceeds, he wins, provisionally—though if it turns into a "quagmire" (i.e., lasts longer than predicted) he loses.

The great puzzle is why a president would even want to make this terrible decision alone. Why would he want to go to war without the approval of Congress and at least most our closest allies? By definition, if we're having a debate, there apparently are two sides to the question. It's not an open-and-shut case. But it is a yes-or-no case. People—maybe thousands of people—will die if the answer is yes, though perhaps more will die or suffer in some terrible way if the answer is no. And there's no maybe.

So getting some kind of congressional and allied approval is, among other things, a reality test. If Congress and allied nations are all or mostly against you, perhaps what you have in mind isn't such a good idea. And even if you, the president, are convinced that you're right, sharing this terrible moral burden with Congress ought to be a comfort, not an irritant, as some recent presidents have treated Congress's episodic insistence on being involved. The support of allied nations may have more practical benefits as well—like helping to pay for it.

Sharing the burden with Congress also means sharing it with the citizenry. It's become too easy for Americans to abdicate the decision, go about their business virtually untouched by the war (except for those who are actually fighting it) and then complain in hindsight if the result isn't satisfactory. You would think, these days, that nobody except George W. Bush ever thought that invading Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein was a good idea.

Sure, there are times when presidents have ignored or avoided the clear wishes of the people and taken military actions that are nevertheless vindicated by subsequent events. Franklin Roosevelt's decision to help arm Britain before U.S. entry into World War II is a famous example. No doubt there are others. But in a democratic society, you can't build in an assumption that democracy is going to get it wrong.

The Constitution, of course, says in so many words that Congress, not the president, has the power to "declare war." It's been the most brazenly ignored provision in that whole document. But it seems to be making a comeback,with the help of libertarian and Obama-hating Republicans like Senator Rand Paul. Some folks argue that the notion of "declaring war" is a foppish 18th century bit of nonsense. These days "the enemy" is likely to be a shadowy terrorist group attached to no particular nation. (Or a nation with nuclear weapons, in which case a nuclear war would be over before Politico could even predict it.)

But in fact, the characteristic war of the 21st century seems to be made-to-order for restoring the congressional war power. This was true of both Gulf wars, and it's true of Syria. Any action against Syria is supposed to be punitive and limited. There is enough time for the country to debate it, and for Congress to vote on it (as the British parliament just did).

In short, unless a president is simply drunk on power, he or she ought to welcome as much sharing as possible of the toughest decision he has to make. And yet none of them do.