Making a Virtue Out of a Necessity
The four reasons it was inevitable that Obama would go to Congress on Syria.
Confused about President Obama’s foreign policy on Syria? Worried that the president is sending conflicting messages to our allies and adversaries, setting bad precedents that will erode presidential authority, and undermining American credibility?
By most accounts, you should be.
In the course of the same statement in the Rose Garden last weekend, the president made a compelling case for military action against Syria and then, in a dramatic pivot, put it all at risk by promising to seek authorization from Congress. In doing so, he raised the very real risk of being Cameronized.
But in reality, the turn is not so much a flip-flop as it is a reflection of the president’s strategic understanding of the cruel, unchangeable realities he faces on Syria. Those who are urging him to push ahead unilaterally or mount a sustained campaign to tip the battlefield balance aren’t being honest with themselves about where public opinion is on military intervention, the nature of the Syrian crisis, and just how bad U.S. options really are.
By having a congressional debate and resolution authorizing military action in Syria, the president is trying to make a virtue out of a necessity. Here are four reasons why the Rose Garden about-face was inevitable and necessary, however risky.
(1) There’s not much support at home, or abroad. "It is a terrible thing," FDR told speechwriter Samuel Rosenman in 1937 after the tepid response to the president’s quarantine speech in Chicago, "to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead, and to find no one there."
Obama is no FDR. I shudder at the comparison. But he does face a similar problem. The Brits have bailed; the U.N. isn’t an option; there will be no NATO consensus and action like there was in Libya; and the U.S. public is largely skeptical of military intervention. So the president is not only a reluctant warrior with a set of bad options, he’s a lonely one, too. When France is your only ally, you know something’s not quite right with the world.
It makes sense, then, for Obama to seek a show of legislative support. And given both his record emphasizing the importance of going through Congress and his risk-averse temperament on foreign policy, we should have seen this coming. That so many people were surprised by the Rose Garden bombshell is an indication that his critics and supporters alike were seeing his world their way, not through the lens of the guy making the decisions.
Make no mistake, too: U.S. policy on Syria is the president’s and has been for the past two years. The gap between Secretary of State John Kerry’s moral outrage and hawkish temperament and the president’s inherent hesitancy to act is on full display every time the two speak on Syria. That the president made this decision apparently without consulting Kerry, the public face of U.S. Syria policy who also has long experience with Congress, speaks for itself. It is Obama who’s running the show.
(2) It’s Iraq, stupid. The idea that this is just a debate on the merits of what to do about Syria is another misreading of the situation. I’m not sure we can even have a real debate on the merits of Syria qua Syria, because the ghost of the Iraq debacle is working overtime, much as it did in the British parliamentary debate last week.
Too many want to ignore Iraq or minimize its impact. But it’s just not reasonable to expect the country to move on, seek closure, and ignore the discretionary and ill-advised nature of that war, which is among the United States’ longest and most profitless conflicts. It is also wrong to assume Iraq — or Afghanistan, for that matter — doesn’t provide much of the context in which the Syria debate is taking place.
As I’ve written before, boots on the ground is a fear; but the real parallel between Iraq and Syria is the wooly-headed way in which means and ends have been conceived. More specifically, they have spurred the question of what purpose American military power is meant to serve, and how precisely it has or can achieve enduring political goals in foreign lands riven with sectarian hatreds and history’s traumas.
Iraq informs everything the president does; he is, after all, the extricator-in-chief, for whom getting America out of bad wars and avoiding new ones is a strategic goal. He does not want to repeat recent history, and that’s where the Congress calculus comes in.
(3) There are only bad or worse options. For two years against the backdrop of more than 100,000 reported dead, a refugee problem that has taken its toll in the millions, and the regime’s use of SCUD missiles and chemical weapons against civilians, Obama has willfully refused to militarize the U.S. role in Syria. Had it not been for his own "red line" and the largest single use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Obama has concluded that even if he had Superman, Batman, and the Wolverine in his Cabinet, the U.S. could not end the civil war or fix Syria. That point is in almost every public discussion of the subject. To what extent he’s personally troubled by the woulda-coulda-shoulda trope that, had the U.S. intervened a year ago, everything would be better is unknown. Syria was a mess then; admittedly, it’s a bigger mess today.
But the dynamics that have put the Syrian civil war beyond resolution for now were in place then: a divided, distracted, and self-interested international community that won’t or can’t define a common strategy; a sectarian powder keg that predated the Arab Spring; an inchoate opposition to a dictator; and a minority regime willing to do just about anything to survive.
Under these circumstances, Obama has been risk-averse not because he’s flawed, morally obtuse, weak, or traumatized. It’s because he sees no real options and refuses to buy into the happy talk about this terrific military option or that. We couldn’t fix Iraq with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground and trillions expended; and we can’t fix Syria from the air.
The president knows this, and that going to Congress and making it a partner and party to the uncertainties of the Syria situation will help distribute some of the risk of limited action. If strikes go badly, Obama will take the hit. But it would be much worse if he plunged ahead without public or congressional support.
(4) The president doesn’t want to rush toward disaster. I’ve written elsewhere that Obama has three options on Syria: do nothing; do everything; and or choose a middle way I call muddle through. The first is unconscionable and would lead to hanging a closed-for-the-season sign on U.S. credibility for the remainder of Obama’s term. The second is reckless and would result both in an open-ended commitment and most likely to America owning Syria in some fashion. The third option — the so-called "limited strike" — could easily prove ineffective and thus carries risk, too.
We should be under no illusions that the president is enthusiastic about the effectiveness of option three, which he now favors. On the contrary, I suspect he has deep doubts about it, particularly the idea that a so-called limited strike would deter Assad from using chemical weapons and degrade his capacity to do so.
Once military action starts, whole new worlds of potential disasters open up. The pressure and expectation to strike again increase with each new horror Assad inflicts, either with chemical or unconventional weapons. A tit-for-tat escalatory cycle kicks in, whereby the U.S. is drawn in deeper without producing quick or determinative results. Washington gets into a proxy war with Iran, Hezbollah, the Russians, and a Syrian regime that will do just about anything to survive. And who are America’s partners in such a campaign? The Israelis, Saudis, Qataris, and the jihadist groups on the ground — each with its own agenda? What a collection of allies.
Because of these uncertainties, a congressionally mandated authorization for the use of force could help the president by bounding U.S. actions. The president’s critics may call it hiding behind Congress; I’d call it developing limits so that the U.S. hopefully doesn’t get sucked into a rabbit hole. We can’t afford it. Let Congress say so and make disaster less likely.
THAT BRINGS US to where we are today. Stripped of allies, arguments, and an overpowering logic and vital national interest to create a sustained military strategy that would end Syria’s civil war, the president is seeking Congressional backing for the still-risky military option he is prepared to implement.
It is a risky gamble, for sure. But not, as some believe, because it’s a cosmic turning point in the debate over the War Powers Resolution; a wholesale abdication of presidential authority; or a dangerous precedent-setter that will turn Obama into a potted plant for the remainder of his term when it comes to military action against Iran. The notion that presidents should always act unilaterally so as not to diminish their own power, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein told me, can be counterproductive and dangerous. In the future, if the president has a clear and compelling case to use force, particularly if there’s urgency, he’ll retain the power and authority to act, regardless of what happens next week on Capitol Hill.
Since the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons two weeks ago and Obama’s Rose Garden speech, the president has created a steady drumbeat that he’s ready, able, and willing to strike Syria. Through both his statements as well as Kerry’s, the president has cast the need for military action in highly principled terms. More than that, the amount of loose talk — on and off the record — about the nature of an impending the strike has virtually made it one of the most telegraphed and well-advertised moves in the history of warfare. Moreover, the 24/7 media environment, with its graphics about naval movements, target sets, and instant analysis of Syria’s chemical weapons facilities, has made what is still only possible seemingly real.
As this drumbeat continues, a limited strike approved by Congress is the least undesirable option in comparison with doing nothing or trying to do too much, and doing either alone. The real problem now for the president — and for the rest of us — is the one that has made him wary of militarizing America’s role from the beginning: what to do the day after an attack and how to prevent the slide toward even greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian trap. And that has much more to do with Assad’s reaction and the uncertainties flowing from a brutal and seemingly never-ending civil war than from the vagaries of a partisan and suspicious Congress.