After decades of presidential overreach in plunging into foreign adventures without the authorization of Congress, the constitutional scholar in the White House has returned to his roots, and to the precedent set by Dwight Eisenhower.
From the moment he took office, Eisenhower was adamant that he would never launch military operations anywhere – with the exception of responding to a surprise attack from the Soviet Union – without the approval of Congress. He ended the undeclared war in Korea; he said “no” to intervention in Indochina. Soldiers did not die in combat operations during the Eisenhower presidency.
In 1956, the Middle East was in crisis. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Eisenhower refused to join the Israelis, British and French in an attack on Egypt. Throughout that crisis, Eisenhower kept congressional leaders fully briefed and left no doubt he would return to them for authorization if he decided to act.
Ironically, concerns about Syria – even then allied with the Russians – were integral to Eisenhower’s deliberations. With allied bombs falling on Egypt and the Soviets threatening to intervene, Ike said to his advisers: “Our people should be alert. If the Soviets attack the French and British directly, we would be in war, and we would be justified in taking military action even if Congress were not in session.”
But Eisenhower never departed from his commitment to seek congressional authorization for military action. Once he coerced the allies into withdrawing their forces from Egypt, the president returned to the Congress in a manner roughly comparable to what President Obama is doing.
But the difference in style is striking. On New Year’s Day 1957, Eisenhower convened a four-hour meeting with congressional leaders of both parties and outlined a resolution he planned to ask Congress to adopt.
The resolution contained three components. The first two concerned economic and military assistance to friendly Middle East states. The third was the sword in the closet, authorizing in advance the use of American military forces to thwart aggression or head off communist subversion. Eisenhower told congressional leaders that their approval would “put the entire world on notice that we are ready to move instantly if necessary.”
Eisenhower presented the resolution to the country in an address to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 5. The Eisenhower Doctrine for the Middle East passed the House by the end of January and the Senate by early March – the latter delayed by the initial refusal of Israel to withdraw its forces from Egypt. Eisenhower did not employ the military authority until 1958, when he dispatched 14,000 troops to Lebanon to stabilize a friendly government. However, that deployment – a classic Eisenhower show of force – did not result in war.
The two situations, other than both involving the Middle East, are not precisely comparable. If authorized, Obama will undoubtedly take quick military action. But Ike, a master of the psychology of deterrence, was playing strategic poker. He understood that if your opponent does not quite know what you will do, his imagination will run wild.
Is it possible that Obama is playing a similar game with Syrian President Bashar Assad? Will Assad begin to think that he personally – not just his weapons or forces – may be in jeopardy? In that perspective, waiting to act may not represent weakness so much as strategic calculation, perhaps aimed at eliciting a commitment not to use chemical weapons.
Yes, if Obama is denied the authority by Congress, he will look weak. But if he gets it – and he probably will – the president may have an even stronger hand, with more options at his disposal. That thought must be intruding on Assad’s sleep these nights.