Saturday was the opening day of the college football season, and President Barack Obama — interrupting the games for a passionate address on Syria from the White House Rose Garden — seemed intent on imitating a coach who continues to call the same plays long after they have stopped working.

Dealing with Congress, cajoling its members to adopt legislation and haranguing them when they fail to do so is one of the president’s biggest tasks. But the president also has the responsibility to act decisively when confronted with a crisis such as the use of sarin gas in Syria.

Although some on Capitol Hill have been bickering about Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons, the illegality of their use has longstanding precedent. So severe are the repercussions of these weapons that Hilter himself, after being gassed during World War I, refused to deploy chemical weapons during World War II combat.

Two of the most pressing recent lessons of American foreign policy are those of Srebrenica and Rwanda, where the United States stayed aloof while thousands of civilians were killed. The arguments rolled out last week to keep the country out of Syria mimic those used to justify these past examples of inaction. Even within months of those catastrophes, opponents of intervention, most notably President Bill Clinton, had already expressed regret.

After adopting a similarly detached posture while 100,000 people have died in Syria in the past two years, Obama finally seems ready to act. But not very swiftly. Instead, he has resumed his unfortunate habit of eschewing leadership in favor of lecturing the legislative branch.

During Obama’s first two years in office, he and his staff deferred to Congress time and again on big measures. The results were less than ideal: a stimulus package laden with pork, a mismanaged health care debate and the monstrosity that was the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.

Then, as John Boehner claimed the House speakership and Democratic majorities eroded in the Senate following the 2010 midterm elections, even imperfect achievements became impossible. During the past two-and-a-half years, the House has voted 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Virtually no meaningful legislation has been passed. Congress and the country have lurched from one self-inflicted crisis to another.

Even the re-elected president’s clear victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney failed to break the mold. That makes it all the more odd that, after hinting that he was prepared to strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without Congressional approval, Obama seemed to take heart from the example of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron deferred to parliament only to be defeated by a coalition of those with deep memories of the Iraq War.

Polls show that Americans seem to be forgetting the lessons of Iraq — just look at opinion polls showing renewed admiration for George W. Bush. Yet a similar grouping of isolationist conservatives and multilateral liberals has already begun to machinate against Obama’s resolution.

Of course, in a perfect world, Obama’s lead sellers in committee rooms this week would have put those fears to rest. Proponents of military action in Syria, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry — both Vietnam veterans, former senators and Iraq skeptics — are two of the nation’s most respected public servants. But the bipartisanship that the duo represents is rapidly receding. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was deeply divided in adopting the resolution Wednesday, was only recently the preserve of statesmen like Richard Lugar. Now it’s the stomping ground of radicals such as Rand Paul.

The result has been three years of failed leadership in the House and obstructionism in the Senate. The people’s business has been neglected. Finally, on this critical foreign policy question, the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution give Obama the chance to act on his own. He should have done so.

Given that Congress has spent the better part of the last three years abdicating all responsibility, it did not deserve a chance to weigh in. Unfortunately, by passing the ball back to them again, Obama shows that even on an issue that should stiffen his spine, he still can’t break the mold.

Evan Hollander is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. State of Play appears every other Friday.

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