Obama, Syria, and the decline of the imperial presidency

September 5, 2013

In 1973, Arthur Schlesinger wrote about the tendency in American history for the president to assume sweeping powers in times of war and crisis. The balance of power established by the Constitution gets upended; Congress and the courts take a back seat; and the executive makes decisions about life and death largely unchecked. He called this “the imperial presidency.” Today, with President Obama turning to Congress to endorse a military strike on Syria, the imperial presidency is beginning to wane.

It’s about time. The 1990s seemed to presage a return to a more balanced government, with Cold War defense spending slashed and “the peace dividend” contributing to a more balanced budget. But then 9/11 happened; America launched a war on terror; and the rest, as they say, is history.

The imperial presidency has some justification in times of acute peril. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 certainly justified some degree of unilateral executive action, as did in its way the financial crisis in the fall of 2008. And few would argue that at times of all-out war, with the country fully mobilized to fight a genuine threat such as Germany and Japan during World War Two, ceding powers to the executive branch is imperative.

But it is equally vital to pare those back when they are no longer required — though this is easier said than done. People do not cede power easily, and bureaucracies are far easier to construct than dismantle. The war on terror has been conducted by an assertive executive branch and a compliant Congress and judiciary. Defenders will say that that’s a good thing, and a necessary one to keep the country safe. Either way, it tilts the balance toward the imperial presidency.

It’s a sign of just how far down the imperial path we’ve gone that Obama’s decision to look for Congressional authorization before sending missiles into Syria was greeted with surprise and not a little contempt. The decision, apparently made over the weekend before Labor Day, caught even Obama’s aides unawares. And rather than hailing the decision as a sign of respect for the congressional war making power specified by the Constitution, a fair number of commentators and even congressional representatives decried the move. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) denounced the decision in blunt language: “his failure to act was a woeful abdication of the president’s powers as commander-in-chief and sent the entirely wrong signal to an increasingly dangerous world.”

The assumption that the president has both the authority and the obligation to strike against Syria because of its use of chemical weapons, and that this authority does not require consultation with Congress, would have astonished generations of Americans. Yes, presidential overreach is hardly a product of recent history, and no, we are better served by treating the Constitution as a “living document” that needs adaptation rather than slavishly cleaving to its every clause, as some devotees of original intent clearly do. However, the degree to which presidents have since the 1950s assumed the power to unilaterally decide to go to war is clearly a level of power unintended by the founders of the United States, undesired by many today, and unconducive to the very openness and transparency of debate and decision-making that forms the foundation of a functional deliberative democracy.

There is, in fact, a direct line between the issues raised by Edward Snowden’s revelations of government spying on domestic emails and communications and the near-decision to launch missiles against Syria. This isn’t about whether such policies are the right ones. They were not decided in the right way. That is, the way they were decided assumes not just competence and integrity on the part of the executive but that in most cases, the president is better able to make better decisions than a deliberative body such as Congress. You may think our current Congress is pitiful, but that is always a risk. The Constitution doesn’t say that “Congress shall have the power to declare war…but only if it’s a good Congress.”

The point of the American system, at least in theory, is that too many factors play into key societal decisions to make it easy for individuals and institutions invested with great power to exercise that power lightly. That is more true than ever for the United States today.

In pure military terms, the United States can do whatever it wants to whomever it wants, and precious few other countries can do a thing about it. As Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, of course, overwhelming military power only gets you so far, unless you are willing to indiscriminately kill civilians and then govern the country you’ve destroyed. And even then, the risks of blowback and failure are large.

But in terms of firing missiles or deploying commandos or using drones or any number of military measures, the president can literally say go and it is done. Yes, he needs the consensus of his team, but the power is there. And once the missiles are flying, there is no turning back.

That type of power is almost impossible to manage well. The temptation to use it is great. We know that because we use it frequently. China, also powerful in its way, does not. Russia, still well-armed, does not. France did dispatch troops to Mali recently, but even with its nuclear arsenal and not inconsiderable military, force is not a primary option. Those domestic systems are not ones most of us would trade for, yet it bears remembering that they are much less tempted to use force to resolve intractable international issues, including dire human rights abuses.

There is one more reason to celebrate the waning of the imperial presidency. For too long, the United States has been locked into a role as the sole guardian of global order. Many Americans want to retain that, but in truth, we play that role selectively and erratically. Obama himself noted the contradictions in an interview with The New Republic and asked how any president could weigh the relative merits of intervening in Syria versus intervening in Congo. The very expectation that the United States must do something throughout the world feeds the domestic expansion of presidential powers. But while those powers grow, the ability and willingness of Americans to act as the global policeman and enforcer is erratic at best. That makes for the worst of possible worlds: an overweening domestic executive and an ineffectual global cop.

The shifts afoot are partly structural. Without a clear and present danger, it’s natural that the pendulum begins to move away from the executive branch and toward other centers of influence. But Obama in recent months has been quietly accelerating the shift rather than fighting it. That may prove to be one of his greatest legacies, even though the diminution of presidential power is not the kind of thing that makes for compelling historical narrative. It is, however, exactly the sort of thing that makes for a compelling democracy, and I’d rather live in that than read books years hence about how the imperial presidency drove the country in precisely the wrong direction.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama talks to bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington while discussing a military response to Syria, September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing



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Mr. Karabell, you truly are an optimist. Obama sent the authorization back to Congress for two reasons – to create more friction and divisiveness between the parties and to wash his hands of assuming full responsibility for any outcome. As for Snowden and the NSA’s spying, most Americans don’t really care and aren’t surprised it’s happening and has been happening all along. What is more surprising is the timing of its release and not it’s usefulness in carrying out Obama’s real agenda for the American people.

Posted by SeeAllEvil | Report as abusive

Before you get too excited about Obama seeking approval from Congress, keep two points in mind: First, he also indicated–and this was backed up by Pelosi on CNN–that he’d strike Syria even if Congress voted no; second, even if Congress gave approval, a strike against Syria still violates international law. So, the Congress can say no, and have Obama trash both the Constitution and international law, or it can say yes, and have both Obama and Congress trash international law. It’s a lose-lose situation brought about by the utter stupidity of our leaders, their lack of true moral courage, and their failure of diplomatic imagination.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

America has them on an open list to be destroyed and controlled by the U.S.. They might as well fight now !
To understand Syria you must understand U.S. policy. America has set out a clear agenda to control the middle east and they start their wars with in these countries and are responsible for the war crimes that take place with in.

So what was this unfolding strategy to undermine Syria and Iran all about?
According to retired
NATO Secretary General Wesley Clark, a memo from
the Office of the US Secretary of Defense just a few weeks after 9/11
revealed plans to “attack and destroy the governments in 7 countries in five
years”, starting with Iraq and moving on to “Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia,
Sudan and Iran.” In a subsequent interview, Clark argues that this strategy is
fundamentally about control of the region’s vast oil and gas resources.

Posted by rghtuner | Report as abusive

Mr. Karabell
That is a very naive statement on your part, this has nothing to do with decline of imperial presidency, that’s alive and well. Mr Obama sent the request to Congress so he doesn’t go down in history as the President who fueled the deadliest and most complex war since 1945. This war is ugly and it is going to get uglier and Mr. Obama knows it, why he is going down that road? you’re going to have to ask Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, they all benefit in many ways.

Posted by KarimNNAss | Report as abusive

Is between a rock and a hard place .

Posted by keshk | Report as abusive

What an utterly silly premise. The Power of the Presidency hasn’t waned one whit. In fact, it has expanded significantly. A Commander-in-Chief who is merely a hawk, constantly sending the military into harms way to no purpose may be “powerful”, but stupid. That’s the kind of CiC we would have with Senilator John McCain, “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb. Bomb-Bomb {insert name}” That’s how Presidents Bush got labeled wimps, because they were too chicken to stand up for our country and knee-jerk sent our troops into hopeless situations, wasting American treasure, but enriching the Plutarks who profit from conflicts.

It’s nice to know that most Americans realize this, so they’re not as stupid as most of our politicians believe. They’re just Pee-Ons with little power.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

The imperial presidency was always a myth, or perhaps a bit of the magician’s sleight-of-hand. For the skilled magician-president, the trick was to be very careful in deciding when to act imperious. As with other magic acts, a bit of distraction is necessary to pull off the imperial presidency trick. In fact, the distraction is the trick, because the distraction is to say “I am” such-and-such when, in fact, everyone knows that the president himself is not going to do it, that he lacks political authority to wage war without the consent of Congress, and that it is political suicide to take military action that is not supported by the majority of the people. The trick is to gauge whether military action is politically possible and, if and only if the answer is yes, to play the imperial presidency card. In other words, the imperial presidency trick is a magic act in which the performer uses the term “I am” to distract the audience from the fact that he or she means “we are” and that there are a lot of other people on the stage, whose participation is necessary in order to make the trick work.

The imperial presidency trick is just as it has always been, and the presidency is not weaker than it has been in the past. The problem is that the imperial presidency trick is not being played very expertly on the Syrian issue.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

There are many good comments to this article, and I concur in all.

I will add……whether this is or isn’t an Imperial Presidency, history (especially recent history) tells us that national leadership (President/his cabinet; Congress) do not necessarily know what is best for the nation, do not fully consider the potential ripple effect of US military actions, and are often driven more by the situation and consequent political climate (to include voter sentiment/emotion) than what is necessary to protect and expand our national security interests.

9/11 provided G.W. Bush the cover he needed to effect a neo-conservative policy imperative in place since the conclusion of the First Gulf War; that being the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the imposition of US dominance in the Middle East. Playing on the fears and emotions of the American public and using lies and disinformation to exploit those fears and emotions, he cowed the Congress into giving him a resolution for use of that force necessary to protect the nation. Bush invaded Iraq, and that invasion led to a strategic defeat for the US; a strategic defeat that is and will haunt us and our national security interests for decades to come.

Now, President Obama has the cover of supposed Syrian use of chemical weapons to justify his intent to use military force to punish Syria for the use of those weapons, but in actuality, the endstate is a regime change.

It all sounds very familiar doesn’t it? But, today, neither the Congress nor the American people are quite so ready to accept what they are told to be the truth. After a decade of wars, the loss of nearly 7000 US KIA, 60-70000 US WIA, several trillion dollars of US war debt, the death of tens of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis, and the Middle East in greater turmoil today than before Bush launched his wars, many Americans are hitting the “I don’t believe” button.

Obama is between a rock and a hard spot. We’ll see if he strikes with or without Congressional authorization.

If he strikes, he is initiating another war; another war that will not end well for US national security interests.
The US has chemical and nuclear weapons. So does the UK, France, Russian, China, and N Korea. Many other nations hold some level of chemical weapons. There is no red line for chemical weapons utilization or they wouldn’t exist.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive

Agree completely. I voted for Obama, but I am adamently opposed to the U.S. continuing this policeman role in the world rather than working through the United Nations. If in fact we do not become involved in Syria on our own, I will count Obama’s approach (involving Congress, who then listen to their constituents) as the most important legacy of his presidency — even though to him it may seem a failure.

Posted by SanJoseCA | Report as abusive

Decline of imperial presidency? Let me summarize Obama:

“The Syrian civil war has been waged for 2 years. But today the Syrian government is winning against the rebels and used chemical weapon. That makes it MY business. I cannot allow a foreign civil war to use weapon I do not approve. Therefore I am going to kill Syrians using weapons I do approve, which is our high tech arsenal that can blow up their entire downtown in one shot. It is my duty as Nobel Peace Prize holder to kill Syrians because they have crossed my Red Line!

The UN demands proof. No, my words are good enough. The UN says Security Council approval is essential before the US launch an unprovoked military strike to a country that threaten absolutely no US interests. Again. That’s nonsense. Under no circumstance will I allow the UN to dictate my actions despite the fact that we a founding UN member and have signed a treaty to permit Security Council this power.

Some will say a US strike on Syria means automatic declaration of war. That’s nonsense. All I want to do is to kill some Syrian so that my reputation and ego is preserved. Sure, they will strike back. But we are well prepared to deal with lots of terrorist strike for the next decade. I call Syrian return strikes act of terror because surely, UN Security Council will not approve them.

And finally, some say I will need Congressional approve to start a war in the nice region of the Middle East. Utter nonsense. The Constitution gives me full power to start and run wars. Like Hitler. It’s none of Congress or people business. All Congress need to do is to authorize funds, and all people need to understand is they will do the dying.

I am doing this for the sake of the whole world, who constantly begs for American global security leadership.

Now am I clear on this simple little subject?”

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive

I have to laugh (even though it’s not funny) when people propose any type of authorization from the UN. Placing any confidence in an organization that functions more like a country club for the international politically elite, corrupt beyond anything imaginable in this country (but very compatible with the political corruption in many of the member countries) and without any enforcement capability, is a domain purely reserved for the handful of (the few)utopians of rose-colored glasses remaining in this world.

The UN is nothing without the U.S. and Western Europe. It should be either be dissolved or moved to some other country–say Yemen or Djibouti. That way, there will be nothing worth corrupting. Besides, the host countries might enjoy all the diplomats.

Beyond that, we should stop subsidizing that cesspool that continuously votes against the U.S. while sucking resources from the city of New York.

Use the term UN and joke interchangeably.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive


You stated: The US has chemical and nuclear weapons. So does the UK, France, Russian, China, and N Korea.

You forgot the most important nuclear player in this debate, Israel. They and their proxies are lobbying hard to push us into striking Syria.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive