WASHINGTON - Ignored for over two years, the crisis in Syria has suddenly captured the world's attention.
Over 100,000 have died at the hands of a brutal dictator and the rebels fighting for his ouster. Women and children have been targeted indiscriminately by a shell of their former government. But it was the mass killing of 1,429 suburb dwellers, from a twilight gas attack on August 21, that crossed a bright red line for US President Barack Obama.
Over the last ten days, Obama's White House widely publicized a military buildup in the Mediterranean Sea that was closely watched around the world. His secretary of state made a forceful case that Syria's Bashar Assad must be punished for the use of chemical weapons. But in a truly shocking shift, Obama— ceding his authority implied by the War Powers Act, and exercised by many of his predecessors— risked much of his remaining political capital Saturday by challenging Congress to make his red line their own.
"Some things are more important than partisan differences," Obama said from the White House. "Now is the time to show the world that America keeps its commitments."
Obama's choice to let Congress vote on the authorization of force puts one of his biggest foreign policy decisions as president in the hands of a legislative body that cannot pass a budget, and that is currently threatening to shut down his government.
And yet, despite the risks, the decision has provided extraordinary insight into the type of president Barack Obama wants to be.
Commenting briefly and unscripted from the White House on Friday, Obama repeatedly mentioned that the murderer of "innocent children" must not go unpunished.
"This is our first task— caring for our children. It's our first job," Obama said last December in Newtown, Connecticut, after the mass shooting of twenty school children. "If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged."
In the fifth year of his presidency, we now have a foreign policy doctrine from Obama: that principled decisions, driven by fundamental good and contrasted by stark and evident evil, serve to reinforce the core national security interests of the United States, even when crippled by practical difficulties.
"Right makes might," he said Saturday on Syria, from the Rose Garden, "not the other way around."
He will now challenge Congress on a wholly different issue. But he does not have military contingencies on his side. The White House cannot separate the facts on the ground in Syria with the effects of a punitive strike on Assad regime resources, try as they might. He can only cite the principled notion that America, alone if need be, must stand for good in the world.
Disregarding the UN Security Council as a politicized body, Obama had accepted the responsibility to protect as a heavy but essential burden for the United States. He is using international politics as an opportunity to highlight core American ideals. But in order to state forcefully to the world that Americans won't stand for the gassing of innocents, and will not tolerate the proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction, Congress must agree.
"Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility," Secretary John Kerry said from the State Department on Friday. "It is profoundly about who we are."
Perhaps that, to Obama, is another core governing principle in American foreign policy: that partisanship should end at the water's edge.
After moving warships and shouting threats, inaction could deliver a steep cost to American credibility around the world. The question Obama wants answered is whether America will adopt the Obama Doctrine: that right is might, and justifies the use of force.