It is hard to quarrel with the decision of any president to ask Congress for authorization to use military force. Even if such authorization is not, strictly speaking, necessary, it is always a good thing to have the legislative branch on board, if possible. In the case of President Obama, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his decision to wait to strike Syria until such time as Congress approves a strike–if it ever does–is a sign not of his commitment to the division of powers but, rather, of his crippling ambivalence about whether it is worth getting involved in Syria at all.
This is, after all, the president who called more than two years ago, all the way back in August 2011, for Bashar Assad to step down but then turned down the recommendation of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrian opposition. He also ignored the recommendations of outside analysts, including me, that he impose a “no-fly” zone, a “no-drive” zone, and “buffer zones” to help force Assad from power, back in the days when the Syrian civil war was still relatively young and it was much easier to imagine a post-Assad transition that did not involve the country fracturing apart.
Instead of doing any of those things, Obama warned, ominously, that his calculations would change if and when Assad used chemical weapons. So Obama stood aside as the civil war killed more than 100,000 people–almost all of them killed with bullets and bombs and shells, not with poison gas. But finally the evidence became inescapable that Assad was using sarin gas as well, and after much hemming and hawing Obama publicly admitted as much in June. His response? Not air strikes. Instead, a pledge to arm the Syrian opposition–a pledge that has still gone unfulfilled.
This is the background to the latest flare-up, with U.S. intelligence estimating that Assad killed some 1,400 people with chemical weapons at the end of August–a claim that is not speculative, as with earlier claims about Iraqi WMD, but rests on solid evidence–to wit, corpses that bear no mark of any bullet or puncture wound. This provoked Secretary of State John Kerry, the chief advocate within the administration of strong action in Syria, into high dudgeon to denounce the “moral obscenity” that Assad had committed. Obama followed with similar, only moderately more temperate language, vowing retribution for this violation of international norms against using WMD.
But at the same time the White House leaked like crazy to make clear to the whole world that any military action would not be designed to topple Assad–it would only be a “shot across the bow” to signal American displeasure. The leaks went so far as to specify that only a few cruise missiles would be employed and that the strikes would last only a few days.
Still, there was an expectation that strikes would occur momentarily–it doesn’t take long to spin up cruise missiles from warships in the Mediterranean. Then the British House of Commons voted against authorizing action and second thoughts seemed to set in within the administration. Now President Obama has announced that he will await congressional action which, in the case of the House, won’t come until the week of Sept. 9, if at all.
Funny, he didn’t think it was necessary to ask congressional authorization before bombing Libya–but that was a cause he was committed to. Not so in the case of Syria, where Obama’s driving desire, it is plain, is to stay as far away from the conflict as humanly possible. The New York Times reporter John Harwood recently tweeted: “Ex-Obama foreign pol aide, asked if any doubt we’ll hit Syria: ‘No.’ Is administration already having 2nd thoughts? ‘Yes. Not a great combo’.”
Not a good combination, for sure–an ambivalent commander in chief thinking of launching a few missiles without any obvious strategic intent beyond signaling anger with Assad and now perhaps secretly hoping that Congress will get him off the hook by blocking action. As numerous commentators, including me, have noted, firing a few cruise missiles risks giving Assad a victory by allowing him to emerge from his bunker after the air strikes to proclaim that he stood up to the American bully. The chances of achieving any results with cruise missile strikes–already slim–decline further with the delay of weeks that congressional action will entail. This will give Assad plenty of time to disperse and harden his missile launchers and other key assets.
None of this is to say that Congress should reject Obama’s request for authorization to use force. On the contrary, a rejection of the resolution would have disastrous consequences–it would signal American retreat to the world and give predators from North Korea to Iran a green light to commit greater atrocities in the future. The best we can hope for now is that an overwhelming vote of support in Congress–however unlikely it appears in the case of the increasingly isolationist House–will stiffen Obama’s spine and lead him to launch smarter strikes that will actually cripple Assad’s air force and other military forces that he is using to commit atrocities, mostly without recourse to chemical weapons.
This should be the first step in a concerted campaign, waged with cooperation from non-jihadist elements of the Syrian rebellion (which, as analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy makes clear, are more numerous than commonly supposed) to finally make good on Obama’s publicly enunciated desire to topple Assad. Anything less, at this point, will not restore the credibility that the United States desperately needs to defend its interests around the world–and most especially to stop the spread of WMD.
And however repellent to elements of his own party a strategy of regime change might be (even if it does not involve sending U.S. ground forces, which no one advocates), Obama may find that by signaling seriousness he may pick up more support from GOP “Jacksonians” who believe that, if force is to be used, it should be decisive–not symbolic.