Damn, He Asked US About Damascus or, ‘CJT Meets WMD’

Why did Obama seek Congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria?

There are a number of theories, ranging from the facile to the subtle (and probably including the subtly facile).  The “best” explanation, from my perspective at least, is that President Obama is signaling something about his ability to prosecute a potential conflict (for example, consider this spin of a classic argument, provided by Roseanne McManus).[1]

But here’s a slightly different take, removing foreign relations from the equation.  (In particular, a problem with the signaling argument is that I find it hard to believe that foreign powers actually believe that Congress would hamper active and ongoing military operations, particularly those that are at east potentially trying to secure chemical weapons in the middle of a strife-torn nation that neighbors Israel.)

The basics of the story is that Obama might simply not know what to do. When I say this, I say it knowing that I have no idea what he should do, either.  This is in contrast to my beliefs prior to the 1990 Gulf War (I thought it was a good idea), Afghanistan (I thought it was a good idea), and Iraq (I thought it was a bad idea).

If Obama wants an honest opinion about what to do there, who should he turn to?  Well, in some sense, he should turn to “the voters,” as the real dilemma, it seems, is intervention is seen as right by the citizens.  (This isn’t cynical: this is “classically” democratic in the sense of saying that, collectively, “we” should do what we collectively think is right.)

So, to get a true opinion about this, who would Obama turn to?  Well, he could turn to voters directly, but I will lay this to the side for practical reasons. Instead, he might turn to the directly elected representatives of the people: Congress.

There is a well-known result in political science known as the Condorcet Jury Theorem (CJT), which says (in part) that a majority vote over two alternatives about which everybody has similar (but only imperfectly known) preferences will tend to result in a better choice than if we simply had one person choose on his or her own.[2]

So, the logic of the CJT suggests that, if the consideration is simply “Strike Syria” or “Don’t Strike Syria,” `polling’ Congress will result in a better outcome for President Obama (and all of us) if we also presume (reasonably to me) that the citizens of the US share the same preferences–though we might have different beliefs right now—over the outcomes in Syria.[3]

So far, so good.  But what of the more subtle question: the CJT depends upon the individuals voting sincerely over the two alternatives.  That is, for Obama’s tact to result in “information aggregation” within Congress would require that members of Congress actually do something like poll their constituents, put in the effort to come up with an informed estimate of whether these constituents prefer intervention or not, and then vote this information sincerely.[4] Note that, to the degree that citizens care about the outcome, they might hold their members accountable for this (high-profile) vote if and when those members seek reelection.  Thus, let’s just suppose that a member, if forced to vote on the issue, would rather vote in line with the majority of his or her constituents.

So, why would Congress do this?  After all, some have claimed that Obama is/was looking for a fall guy.  Why not just demur?

Well, on the one hand, the sad reality is that people are and will continue to die in Syria.  Regardless of how, if Congress does nothing AND Obama also demurs, then the blood is arguably then (at least partly) on Congress’s hands.  Hawks in Congress missed a chance to assert our massive and massively expensive military might, Doves missed a chance to vote against war, and the many moderates on this issue in both parties are sitting there looking even more ineffective.

Secondly, Obama’s gambit has set this up as a de facto “Constitutional Moment.” If Congress doesn’t act at all, the presumption that Presidents do and should have great flexibility with respect to unilateral military action will presumably only be bolstered. For similar reasons, Congress can’t/shouldn’t say “do whatever” or “well, you’re going to decide what you decide anyway.”  Thus, unless Congress wants to simply vote “no,” which then results in a high profile and public acceptance of the “blood on the hands” problem above or a de facto Presidential override (thus bolstering the Presidential autonomy dimension), they must “own” this moment.  While this might bias members towards a “yes” vote, this classic article (gated) by my colleague Randy Calvert suggests that this bias—in favor of the President’s stated opinion—actually makes it more likely for a collective decision of  “no” to be persuasive.[5]

So, where are we?  Well, I’ll simply quote President Obama:

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. 

With that, I leave you with this.



[1] Also, in terms of domestic/institutional/public law signaling, Eric Posner provides an excellent take on the real institutional impact of President Obama’s request for Congressional authorization.

[2] There’s a lot of technical details concerning when the theorem actually holds, but I leave those to the side: I mean, hey, this is just a blog post.

[3] I am leaving aside the distinctions between pure majority rule (as in the classical CJT) and the details of Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution.  These distinctions are relatively unimportant, particularly given the fact that Obama is not actually bound by the decision of Congress, so it doesn’t even need to duly pass anything to achieve the goals supposed in this post.

[4] I am also leaving aside the question of coarsening of citizen-level information through the binary vote choices of the 535 members of Congress. For example, if each member votes in line with a delegate model and simply votes the majority support of his or constituents, then a majority of Congress might support intervention with as few as 25% of voters actually supporting it (or vice-versa), but this is both unlikely and beyond the scope of this post.

[5] If I’m blogging, I’m self-promoting, so let’s keep it going.  I have an article (published and gated here; ungated working paper version here) that considers how this type of situation might similarly bias the information that Obama is getting from his advisers.  Similarly, Sean Gailmard and I have an article (published and gated here; ungated working paper version here) that examines how and why the quality of the information presented to Obama in situations such as these might be slanted/altered through bureaucratic procedures and their circumvention.