Juan Cole has good analysis on why President Obama chose to go to Congress before attacking Syria. Short version: it is reasonable to argue that the U.N. Charter empowered the President to go to war without Congress in Libya. (This is not a universal interpretation, but it is nonetheless a reasonable one.)
In Syria, though, there is no UNSC resolution. Worse yet, there are few other sources of international support, with NATO declining to get involved and the U.K. Parliament voting no. (The Arab League has now given wishy-washy and vague support to a strike.) Finally came the news that U.S. signals intelligence suggested that the sarin attacks might have been “the action of a local colonel who either went rogue or made an error in mixing too much sarin into crowd control gases.”
So by Friday, Obama had painted himself into a box with repeated statements that he had to attack Syria because of the gas attack. But as he looked behind him, the troops he was leading had thinned out faster than Custer’s at the Little Bighorn.
With regard to domestic politics, Obama would be pilloried on Capitol Hill if he backed down as his international support (and elements of his case) collapsed. If he went forward with a unilateral strike, he would be alone and exposed, and risk extreme reputational damage if the operation went bad. (What if a cruise missile went astray and hit a village, killing women and children? What if the missile strikes riled up radical Shiites in Iraq and U.S. facilities in that country were attacked?)
Obama made a clever political calculation. The Tea Party and the GOP in general had been demanding that he submit the Syria file to them. So he obliged them. If they say ‘no,’ as the British parliament did, then Obama is off the hook. If they say ‘yes,’ then they are full partners in any failures that result. Either way, the issue is taken off the agenda of the 2016 election and Democrats are held harmless.
Those who think a ‘no’ vote will make Obama an early lame duck do not reckon with how all the votes have been ‘no’ for some years now. Nothing will change in that regard.In short: without international support, the strike was looking dicier, but the President did not want to hand the GOP a political cudgel to use in 2014 and 2016. You might almost think that he wants to lose the vote. Almost.