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President Obama isn’t asking Congress to declare war against Syria but he is asking Congress to approve a military action against that country’s president over his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people.
President Obama took his case to several TV networks yesterday and tonight he will speak directly to the American people as other presidents have when it comes to military action.
There were declarations of war for World War I and World War II. There was not a declaration of war for Vietnam. Congress authorized military action against Iraq, but there was no formal declaration of war for that conflict.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. Amid the debate and diplomacy, President Obama delivers a national address tonight from the Oval Office about Syria. The president has been trying to make the case that military strikes against Syria are a necessary response to President Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons.
President Obama is not asking for a declaration of war, that's something Congress has granted 11 times in U.S. history, started with the War of 1812 against the U.K. in 1812, of course. He's asking for the authorization of military action, similar to what Congress authorized for action against Iraq in 2002. There was no formal declaration of war for that conflict.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He joins us from the Princeton studio. Julian, welcome.
JULIAN ZELIZER: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, I want to talk to you about the moment that President Obama finds himself in. And first, I want to just hear some of what he has said. Let's listen first to what he said in the White House Rose Garden on August 31st.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.
HOBSON: But in that same statement, Julian Zelizer, President Obama also said this.
OBAMA: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.
HOBSON: Which is of course where we find ourselves now. What is the challenge that President Obama faces tonight given what he has already said?
ZELIZER: Well, look, until basically a day ago, the challenge was to try to win some more congressional and public support for a military intervention that was extremely unpopular, to explain why were doing this as opposed to other military interventions and what the urgency was and finally why this won't be another Iraq.
Now, it's changed a bit because now we have a diplomatic breakthrough, at least potentially, on the table. And so he's going to have to combine a more militaristic message with some sense for Americans of why he will pursue this diplomatic alternative and how long he will wait to see if the Syrians are serious.
HOBSON: And there are already questions about the weakness of the presidency. People are talking about why would he trust Assad and President Putin on this. Do you think that's fair? There's a headline on Politico today: The United States of Weakness.
ZELIZER: Yeah, I mean, that is a traditional criticism of anyone who enters into diplomacy. Why, you know, trust another nation who's an adversary to follow through on a deal? Ronald Reagan faced that same criticism in the late 1980s, in '86 and '87, when he started to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev, and many conservatives didn't trust him. So that's part of diplomacy.
So President Obama has to be very careful and very persuasive why this risk is worthwhile, especially after he's been making, and his administration has been making, some pretty dramatic rhetorical statements about Syria and the Assad regime in the past few weeks. So that's a big part of his challenge in the speech.
HOBSON: What about the idea that he has been unwilling to answer really directly what he would do? What about the idea that he strikes, even if Congress decides against this, votes no?
ZELIZER: Well, he's left himself some room to do that. It obviously contradicts statements he's been making since 2008 and even earlier than that. Obama was a strong critic of President Bush for doing too little to really include Congress in decision-making. And here you have a president who has opened the door to taking action even if Congress says no.
You know, this is a pattern that goes back to the Korean War. It goes back even longer. But since 1950, this is how presidents have conducted war. They've done it on their own. They've done it through executive power. And just because of the timing of how this rolled out - in this case, Congress has an option to say no after the president's basically announced that he's going to go do this one way or another.
HOBSON: What does it do to the Obama presidency, do you think, and what he's able to accomplish? We've talked on this show about the potential that immigration reform could be off the table, and that was going to be his main signature achievement in his second term. What does it to his presidency if Congress votes no on the authorization of force?
ZELIZER: Well, there's two ways to think of this. One is if they vote no, it's obviously a blow, that if the president can't build support for this kind of military action, Congress is certainly going to be willing to say no on other issues. They will see him as less powerful.
The other part of this is just the calendar. You know, politics is often about scheduling, but everything got pushed up because of this. And immigration now is farther and farther away. You know, after this come the budget battles, and many people are thinking immigration might not come up for several more months.
And so, you know, that's very damaging to President Obama and the domestic issues that he wants to achieve. And so I think he's trying desperately to move forward. But this is going to consume time. And we get closer and closer to midterm elections. So I think that's even a bigger threat than the no vote.
HOBSON: Let's talk about this idea of declaration of war versus authorization of military force. And I want to go back in history a little bit. Let's first listen to President George H.W. Bush making the announcement back in 1991 about the start of the Persian Gulf War.
PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait. Tonight the battle has been joined.
HOBSON: So tell us, what is the precedent for asking for military force versus asking for a declaration of war versus just doing it on your own?
ZELIZER: Well, the last declaration of war was World War II, and since then we have had presidents asking for resolutions of support, which is not as grand a gesture by Congress. It doesn't entail the same kind of commitment from the legislative branch, and as the executive branch has become more powerful, this is how we've conducted wars.
Presidents still come to Congress to ask for their support, but they've avoided the declaration of war, and they've generally asked for vague authority to do what is necessary. And, you know, the most infamous case of this was Vietnam, where Lyndon Johnson asks for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August of 1964 to have authority to respond to an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin.
And that authority opened the doors to him to vastly expand the military operation that became Vietnam. So the danger is that what is asked for is only the beginning of a much grander mobilization than the public was willing to support.
HOBSON: I think we have some tape of that. Let's listen.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: And I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia.
HOBSON: President Johnson back in 1964. Julian Zelizer, in the 30 seconds we have left, just put this moment in context. Would you say that this is one of the most important moments of the Obama presidency, tonight's speech?
ZELIZER: No. He's had many important moments, and this is still a contained problem. So the speech is important but what really matters is how he handles this diplomatic potential breakthrough and if an operation takes place that it's well thought out what we're trying to achieve.
HOBSON: Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, author of "Governing America: The Revival of Political History." Julian, thanks as always.
ZELIZER: Thank you.
HOBSON: And the latest news is coming up next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.