Congress Must Take Action on Syria

Trump took action in Syria, and now Congress must follow suit.

On Thursday night, the United States took the welcome step of acknowledging its years-long military effort to undermine the Syrian regime by shifting from covert operations to kinetic strikes. President Donald Trump deserves commendation. He has a long record of expressing skepticism about the prospects for a successful intervention in Syria. But he was faced with a historic challenge by the Assad regime, and he met the moment. Moreover, in explaining that this mission was an effort to restore the norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, Trump defined the action in Syria as a campaign in defense of vital U.S. national interest; not a humanitarian mission. However, the administration has not made it clear what the parameters of this campaign are or even if it is a campaign at all. It is, therefore, incumbent on Congress to not just execute its constitutional role as the arbiter of war and peace but to guide the administration by helping to set some of those parameters.

“Several key Senate Republicans have said they don’t think Trump would need to pursue [Authorization for Use of Military Force] to strike Syria if he wanted to,” revealed ABC News reporter Ali Rogin hours before the missiles started flying. There is simply no justification for such a dereliction. The War Powers Act provides the White House all legal justification needed to pursue the limited action it has taken, but only politics would prevent lawmakers from taking up a more legally sound AUMF targeting the Syrian government.

Congress has few excuses. If Trump requested an AUMF in Syria, it would not resemble Barack Obama’s demand for a resolution authorizing the fight against the Islamic State. Obama explicitly requested a resolution authorizing military force that would have had no time limits or geographic constraints, and would have legitimized the use of force against ISIS affiliates yet to be founded. Such a resolution would have been irresponsible and duplicative of the 2001 AUMF authorizing force against “associated forces” of al-Qaeda.

No similar qualms should prevent the congressional authorization of strikes on the Syrian regime, a specific entity that exists only within well-defined borders. The only obstacle before lawmakers today is the same fear that paralyzed them in 2013: that the president’s heart isn’t in the mission, and that their constituents would punish them for taking a hard vote to authorize another Mideast war. But are those valid concerns?

“This was not a small strike,” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster asserted last night following the announcement that the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Syria. Those strikes were aimed at the Shayrat air base near Homs, whence it is believed Tuesday’s nerve gas attack originated. Those missiles targeted the airfield, Syrian warplanes, fuel depots, and other relevant assets. In observance of a “de-confliction” agreement the United States inked with Russia in 2015, the administration informed Moscow ahead of the strikes to make sure Russian personnel co-located at Assad’s bases would not get caught in the crossfire. That means Assad’s forces knew the strike was coming, and the casualties resulting from them were minimized as a result.

So what’s the follow-on strategy for this campaign? To hear officials tell it, there is none. Last night, a U.S. Defense Department official told Reuters the strikes on Syrian targets was a “one-off.” House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff confirmed that assessment: “It’s not the present intention to have more than this single strike,” he said. If the goal of these strikes was to communicate to the regime that the use of chemical weapons on civilians is no longer a cost-free proposition for the regime, that’s a welcome development. It will not, however, end after one strike.

As McMaster confessed, the attacks on Thursday night did nothing to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to use unconventional or standard weaponry to massacre civilians, as it has for seven years. When—not if—the next massacre occurs, the administration will face substantial political pressure to respond. To do otherwise would be to abandon the rationale for Thursday’s strikes. But Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus will face equal pressure to make those retaliatory strikes costlier for the United States than Thursday’s was.

If this becomes a campaign and the White House decides to degrade the Assad regime from the air, the diminishing returns and increased risk of collateral damage from cruise missiles will give way to a reliance on fixed-wing aircraft to execute strikes. Russia has already promised to strengthen the sophisticated air defense network it has installed around likely U.S. targets in Syria. Facing increased domestic pressure to continue the mission against Assad but lacking a painless way to do so, the Trump administration will find itself in a predicament.

Moreover, what if the Assad regime again ignores a “red line” set by an American president and deploys chemical weapons? And how does the White House define chemical weapons? As chlorine gas rained down upon Syrian civilians over the course of the last four years, the Obama administration simply decided not to count it as a weapon of mass destruction to preserve the fiction it had rid Syria of WMDs. Does the Trump administration believe chlorine, like sarin, is a chemical weapon? It’s a question the White House should answer before the matter is forced upon them by events.

By making a case for why striking Assad is both a moral matter and an issue of paramount national security, the president can soften the public’s apprehension toward a campaign in Syria targeting Assad. If Trump won’t make the case, members of Congress can and should. At the very least, they must sanction this mission. To sit back and allow the president to define the terms of engagement relying entirely on the constitutionally dubious War Powers Act would be pure cowardice.

Beyond all this, Congress should also play a role in defining the mission in which the Trump administration is engaged. The statements from Trump administration officials, which suggest this is not a military campaign but a reflex, may soon be overtaken by events. It would nevertheless be prudent for Congress to decline to wait for an invitation before defining the purpose of this mission for the president and guiding him toward a set of clearly defined and achievable objectives. In this way, a modest improvement over the Obama administration’s approach toward Syria can be transformed into a vast improvement.

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Congress Must Take Action on Syria

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Georgia on Our Minds

Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.

We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

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Pamela Geller: The Threat to Free Speech

The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:

The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.

Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.

With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.

Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:

  • Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
  • Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
  • Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
  • Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
  • Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
  • Banned from Britain.

A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.

This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.

The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.

The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?

There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.

Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.

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The Democrats’ Crippling Apocalypse Fix

Hair immolation isn't a strategy.

The Democratic Party is in the midst of some soul searching after an overhyped Democratic candidate failed to flip a Republican district. For many, that soul-searching has taken the form of blame- shifting.

Buoyed by district-level polling and the abiding sense that the country was eager for an opportunity to censure President Donald Trump, Democrats became convinced of Jon Ossoff’s electability in the race to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress. Amid their grief over this misjudgment, Democrats are groping in search of a cause for this letdown other than their own imprudence.

The voters in Georgia’s 6th didn’t respond to Ossoff’s centrist appeals and cautious campaign, some contended. What made the difference was vicious outside attacks like one (condemned by all parties) that sought to tie the Democratic candidate to the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia last week. The notion that the affluent, well-educated, urban professionals who populate this Trump-skeptical, GOP-leaning district in the outskirts of metro Atlanta are just too redneck to vote Democrat doesn’t wash.

Others have suggested that Ossoff’s message was poorly calibrated to meet this particular moment. The Democratic candidate’s reluctance to specifically campaign against Donald Trump by name was, in their estimation, a miscalculation. “One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” declared Center for American Progress’ exasperated president, Neera Tanden. “In an incendiary time, Ossoff has striven to be nonflammable,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea. Indeed, Ossoff’s reluctance to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment and his skepticism toward progressive spending proposals led some liberals to speculate (sotto voce, of course) that this was the wrong man to pilot a “Trump-backlash trial balloon.”

Implied in these frustrated expressions of angst is the notion that Ossoff just didn’t speak the language of apocalypse to which Democrats in the age of Trump are accustomed. But this is untrue. Ossoff did speak this language. He devoted time on the trail to lecturing about the threat to American “prosperity and security” represented by climate change. “History will condemn us,” Ossoff said after Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He cut campaign spots warning that Trump “could start an unnecessary war” and implied that he lacked the judgment to determine the appropriate response to the prospect of an incoming volley of nuclear weapons. In his concession speech, Ossoff praised his supporters for standing with him even “as a darkness has crept across the planet.” Is this what amounts to caution and prudence in the modern Democratic rhetorical catalogue?

Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to conduct any public postmortem on their party’s 2016 campaign, in part, because its members don’t believe they did anything wrong. Perhaps they are operating on the assumption that Donald Trump’s victory was some kind of fluke and the GOP’s historic majorities on the state-and federal-level were the natural results of a pendulum swing against similarly prohibitive Democratic majorities. Whatever the thinking, this reluctance has led to what may become a crippling strategic disconnect. The Democratic Party’s base and its elected representatives are not on the same page.

Jon Ossoff and his team used the unprecedented resources at their disposal to test and refine a message that was perfectly attuned to voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Despite that well-orchestrated effort, he still came up short. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, having no other indicator of their rhetorical efficacy than their hysterical friends, are convinced that their representatives are simply not fraught enough. Democratic voters, not their elected representatives, call the tune. Eventually, they’ll get what they demand.

Ossoff and the Democrats played a good hand well, but not well enough to beat the house. That happens. The risk for Democrats in this instance is to blame this losing candidate for failing to indulge their insatiable ids. It’s a risk for any party to elevate candidates for high office solely because they tickle their base voters’ erogenous zones. As The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson warned, “get ready for the Democrat version of Christine O’Donnell.” For Democrats in these overheated times, that’s a risk they seem willing to take.

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The Chaotic Post-War World Takes Shape

A post-ISIS Potsdam Conference.

Max Boot is right: Russia is not going to risk igniting a third world war by targeting coalition aircraft over the skies of Syria. And yet it would be a mistake to ignore Moscow’s warnings. They are indicative of the unstable international environment that could become the new status quo in a world after ISIS.

As the ISIS threat is disrupted and the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks amid pressure from coalition fighters and their allies, the sovereign powers that intend to maintain their positions in the region after that conflict are asserting themselves in unpredictable and increasingly violent ways.

On Tuesday, the United States shot down an armed Iranian drone that officials said posed a direct threat to U.S.-led coalition troops on the ground in Syria. It was the second time this month that an Iranian-made military UAV was shot out of the sky after it allegedly targeted U.S.-supported forces. In a major escalation, a U.S. warplane engaged and shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber on Sunday when it reportedly bombed American-backed forces laying siege to the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. Moscow responded to this attack on its vassal state with unnerving threats.

“From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets,” read a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The implication that Russia would target and potentially attack Western aircraft was later downgraded to a promise to escort them out of area. But the important bit wasn’t Russia’s threat but the region Moscow had defined as off limits.

By delineating the territory west of the Euphrates as beyond the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition mission, Russia has drawn the preliminary outlines of an informal Syrian partition. It is no coincidence that the two Iranian drones destroyed by coalition forces were struck near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. According to former Obama administration advisor and Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl, the regime wants “to own the rest of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, where they hope to link [with] Iranian-backed Shia militia.” Even if the West is not preparing for the post-conflict world, Iran, Syria, and Russia are.

The only post-war planning that appears to be on the minds of Western geopolitical architects is the need to rebuild Syria, if only to stave off a humanitarian disaster and prevent further migrations of displaced refugees into Europe. In early April, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini revealed just such a plan, contingent upon progress toward Bashar al-Assad’s abdication. This announcement was overshadowed, however, by a brutal chemical attack by regime forces on civilians—an attack that resulted in direct hostilities between the United States and the Syrian regime.

Efforts to create a post-war power-sharing framework have stalled, but the task is growing more urgent by the day. With Iran and its proxies, Russia, and Damascus on one side, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and their proxies on another, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Australia presiding over all of it, theompeting interests in Syria are impossible to manage absent some kind of structure. Even when ISIS is routed and scattered, the Syrian regime seems likely to endure in some form. That alone ensures that these powers will remain at cross-purposes and, thus, that there will be no speedy troop withdrawals from the region.

The chaos in Syria is only going to get worse as the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is contained and controlled. Great power politics is about to make a comeback in the Middle East, and the West doesn’t seem to be ready for it.

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Iran’s Real Missile Target Wasn’t Syria

Old obsessions die hard.

On June 18, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched missiles into Syria in retaliation for a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb the previous week. While these missiles appear to have caused no casualties, Iranian officials were clear that their target went far beyond the Islamic State. According to the Tehran Times:

Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC aerospace unit, hailed the missile raids, saying any more evil act against Iran will result in “costly consequences.” “Our enemies should know that Tehran is not London or Paris,” Hajizadeh stated, a reference to the European capitals coming under numerous terrorist attacks over the past years. Iran vowed quick revenge after ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the parliament and the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini on June 7, killing 18 and injuring at least 56. In a statement released after the attacks, the IRGC vowed avenge, saying, “The spilling of any pure blood will not go unanswered.” Also, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, head of the Iranian armed forces, pledged “unforgettable lessons” to terrorists and their backers after the Tehran assault. Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei tweeted, “This was just the beginning of the revenge. Harsher slap is underway.” Rezaei also called the missile attacks “the message of Iran’s authority” to “the supporters of terrorism.”

Ahmad Majidyar, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute and a talented Iran-watcher, noted that Rezaei tweeted, “Mr. Netanyahu, this was just the message of Zolfiqar (missile); the message of Shahab and Zelzal is much stronger!” before erasing his tweet.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry has recently been making the rounds lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, for example, he traveled to Norway where he sat on a podium with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There, both criticized the Gulf Arab state and the current U.S. administration. In Kerry’s quest for the prize, he either lied about U.S. allies or leaked highly classified intelligence by detailing the (still-classified) contents of conversations. Either way, he sought to depict himself as a peacemaker when, in reality, he emboldened and resourced the main source of instability in the region. In his quest to secure an accord and to cement his own personal legacy at any strategic cost, he watered down language about Iran’s ballistic missile program. This provided Iran with cover, or at least enough legal ambiguity, to pursue its ballistic missile program.

Kerry and his team knew Iran’s aggressive intent but did not care. Numerous Iranian officials—including those surrounding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have pledged to develop and even use nuclear weapons. It was Hassan Rouhani, as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who managed, resourced, and oversaw Iran’s covert nuclear program to develop such weaponry. Indeed, he subsequently bragged about it.

Despite Iran lobbyists’ efforts to suggest that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel’s should be wiped off the map, pictures from Tehran and Iran’s own official translations tell another story. When Major-General Hassan Moghadam died in an explosion at a missile laboratory and test facility in 2011, the Iranian press reported that his last will and testament asked that his epitaph read, “The man who enabled Israel’s destruction.” A year ago, Iran tested to ballistic missiles inscribed in Hebrew with calls for Israel’s destruction.

Iran’s immediate target might have been the Islamic State, but its ideological goal remains eradication of Israel. That the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards tweeted acknowledgment of such goal should not be as easily erased as his tweet. After all, Iran deal or not, it is the Revolutionary Guards and not Zarif who are in charge of the military applications of Iran’s nuclear program.

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