The reason for US President Barack Obama's turnaround on striking Syria without the approval of the American people is unclear. He may have been convinced by the British parliament's rejection of the idea last Thursday, or perhaps high-profile critics prompted his rethink. Whatever the motive, his decision to go to Congress is right. But even if lawmakers give the green light, that is not justification for military action; in keeping with international requirements, he then has to take his case to the UN Security Council.
There is a sector of the American establishment that believes otherwise. It contends that the US is the world's moral authority and has the right, through its economic and military power, to intervene in foreign matters as it sees fit. The claimed nerve gas attack on the outskirts of the Syrian capital on August 21 that killed more than 1,400 justifies a tough response, if proven true; international treaties ban chemical weapons. But even though such an incident crosses a "red line" marked by Obama a year ago, Syria poses no threat to the US or its interests.
Obama is under pressure to respond militarily for the sake of his credibility and that of the US. But credibility is never an excuse for foreign intervention, nor is the outcome of Syria's civil war for Americans to decide. British Prime Minister David Cameron's defeat in a parliamentary vote for involvement robbed Obama of his top ally, leaving France as the only major backer. He will meet his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, and lobby President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit starting in St Petersburg today.
US presidents have for six decades ignored their country's constitution when sending the military into action. Congress has the sole power to declare war, but since Harry Truman launched the Korean war in 1950, it has been sidestepped or manipulated by commanders-in-chief. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, well knows this. While campaigning for the presidency in 2007, he pointed out that the president "does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally order a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation".
With the global appetite for war lacking after the debacle of the Iraq misadventure, he has rejected history and gone to lawmakers. But even if they can be convinced that a war crime has been committed, Congress does not speak for the world. No nation has the right to act in Syria without UN consent.