Monday, September 02, 2013

To vote for bombing Syria

Now all those politicians who were criticizing Obama for moving unilaterally on Syria without the imprimatur of a Congressional resolution have to decide whether or not to support the administration plan to send missiles into Syria. This vote should be upon the merits of the proposal, not a partisan vote to either support a president of one's own party or to oppose a president of the other party. Let's hope that is how our representatives are approaching the vote. Such votes are usually not whipped and that is how it should be.

It's a really tough call. I've been divided on how I would vote. We need to stop leaders from using chemical weapons on their own people, but I don't really accept that killing a thousand people with chemical weapons is so much worse than killing a hundred thousand with conventional attacks.

The rest of the question is whether what the President plans to do will accomplish anything or would just be a pinprick to uphold Obama's warning of crossing a red line but wouldn't actually do anything. Then we have to worry about the message we have just given Iran about whether the international community has any will to stop them in their plans for nuclear weapons. I think we've been sending a message for a decade that the answer to that is a resounding "no." And no missiles sent into Syria would change that message. We haven't done anything to them for all the support they gave to those killing American troops in Iraq. And we know that Iran is supporting Syria.

If I were in Congress, I would have to be assured that the goal in attacking would be more than a token show of force to give Obama's red-line statements a little force without actually doing anything more. Otherwise, what is the point? If all Obama is proposing is a pusillanimous "shot across the bow," I would vote against the resolution. However, if he really plans to seriously degrade Assad's military ability to wage war against the rebels, specifically those rebels which are not allied with al Qaeda, I would vote for the resolution. However, those are big "ifs" and it may well not be possible to give such assurances. In that case, I would doubt that any missile attack would accomplish any of our strategic goals.

One thing is sure is that, by deciding to go to Congress for approval of attacking Syria, Obama has weakened his usual position on executive authority to conduct military policy.

The Senate is already planning to scale back the resolution that the administration has put forth.
It took less than 24 hours for lawmakers to realize that the draft authorization for the use of military force sent to Congress by President Barack Obama would open the door to a prolonged war with Syria.

That’s not something that Obama or top administration have been publicly pushing for — all indications are that the plan is for targeted action to deter the regime of Bashar al-Assad from further use of chemical weapons. But, as became clear on Capitol Hill on Sunday, Congress has no appetite for the broader mandate that the White House technically proposed.
How typical that the written resolution was much broader than what Obama the "limited, narrow" action Obama was talking about publicly. And the result of going to Congress is that Obama has laid his effort open to this sort of interference.

David Rothkopf writes in Foreign Policy that one of the major consequences of Obama's decision to go to Congress has "just dialed back the power of his own office."
The president's own action in Libya was undertaken without such approval. So, too, was his expansion of America's drone and cyber programs. Will future offensive actions require Congress to weigh in? How will Congress react if the president tries to pick and choose when this precedent should be applied? At best, the door is open to further acrimony. At worst, the paralysis of the U.S. Congress that has given us the current budget crisis and almost no meaningful recent legislation will soon be coming to a foreign policy decision near you. Consider that John Boehner was instantly more clear about setting the timing for any potential action against Syria with his statement that Congress will not reconvene before its scheduled September 9 return to Washington than anyone in the administration has been thus far.

Perhaps more importantly, what will future Congresses expect of future presidents? If Obama abides by this new approach for the next three years, will his successors lack the ability to act quickly and on their own? While past presidents have no doubt abused their War Powers authority to take action and ask for congressional approval within 60 days, we live in a volatile world; sometimes security requires swift action. The president still legally has that right, but Obama's decision may have done more -- for better or worse -- to dial back the imperial presidency than anything his predecessors or Congress have done for decades.
Of course, there is no definite reason to believe that future president will be bound by this precedent rather than other precedents of presidents proceeding without congressional approval. I do know that discussions with my students in my AP Government class of presidential power in foreign and military policy will have to be updated for this year.

Of course, the irony of the President and Secretary Kerry's positions reversing their own statements about what should be done in such situations is too delicious to ignore. Rand Paul was able to turn around Kerry's words on Vietnam against him by asking how we could ask American troops to die for a mistake. Of course, Obama is not planning to put any troops on the ground. For now. But there were other reasons to feel almost sorry for the position John Kerry was put in on the Sunday shows. As Charlie Martin notes,
It took some real talent for Obama to make me feel bad for Kerry. Kerry is a generally reprehensible person, but in this episode he had to:
explain why Obama was right to delay the action he clearly called for yesterday
lie straight-faced (“a horse walked into a bar…”) to claim that the Cabinet had been consulted before Obama changed tacks, when Chris Wallace was quoting the White House that the Cabinet hadn’t been consulted
as well as generally supporting the Presidential power that he and Obama ran against in their campaigns.

Just remember, at these prices, we call them escorts.
Ooh. Slash.

Remember when John Kerry was all impressed with Bashar Assad and called him "my dear friend." And as Nancy Pelosi tries to rally Democrats to vote for the resolution, let's remember Pelosi's visit to Assad. Bot the Kerry and Pelosi visits provided ample propaganda value to Assad.

And Obama has had to reverse everything he has ever said about American military force. Victor Davis Hanson writes,
One of the problems that Barack Obama has in mounting an attack against the Assad regime is that the gambit violates every argument Barack Obama used against the Bush administration to establish his own anti-war candidacy.

The hypocrisy is so stunning that it infuriates his critics and stuns his supporters.

Deriding the Iraq war was Obama’s signature selling point. He used it to great effect against both Hillary Clinton (who voted for the war) in the Democratic primaries and John McCain in the general election. For the last five years, disparagement of “Iraq” and “Bush” has seemed to intrude into almost every sentence the president utters.

And now? His sudden pro-war stance makes a number of hypocritical assumptions. First, the U.S. president can attack a sovereign nation without authorization from Congress (unlike the Iraq war when George W. Bush obtained authorization from both houses of Congress). Even if Obama gets a no vote, he said that he reserves the right to strike.

Second, Obama assumes that the U.S. must go it alone and attack unilaterally (unlike the coalition of the willing of some 40 nations that joined us in Iraq).

Third, it is unnecessary even to approach the UN (unlike Iraq when the Bush administration desperately sought UN support).

Fourth, the U.S. president must make a judgment call on the likelihood of WMD use, which is grounds ipso facto to go to war (unlike Iraq when the vast majority of the 23 congressionally authorized writs had nothing to do with WMD [e.g., genocide of the Marsh Arabs and Kurds, bounties to suicide bombers, harboring of international terrorists, violations of UN agreements, attempts to kill a former U.S. president, etc.]).
Hanson goes on to use Obama's own words to indict Obama's actions today.

While pointing out Obama's hypocrisy is always entertaining, his actions in Syria or rather his lack of action up to now is really what should be indicted. He missed his opportunity to be more influential in overturning Assad and helping those rebel forces which are not allied with al Qaeda by staying out of the conflict in the early days. Obama promised to send arms to the rebels and still hasn't done so. He made this red-line statement without seemingly any real thought or preparation for what to do if Assad crossed that line. His decision to go to Congress seems to have been a last-minute decision. And somehow, making that statement in the Rose Garden and then leaving in a motorcade to play golf doesn't send the right signal. Couldn't he have spent the afternoon on the phone with Congressmen rather than on the golf course? And what does it mean to say that he has the authority to attack Syria but is seeking authorization before he does so?

As Fred Hof writes, the administration has displays "a mystifying lack of US preparedness."
The events of the past ten days suggest that there was no administration forethought to the possibility of a major chemical incident in Syria; there was no plan in place to respond to a major chemical attack by a regime that had already demonstrated its deep and abiding contempt for the president and his red lines. The results of this mystifying lack of preparedness have been abysmal. Secretary of State John Kerry responded quickly with a very convincing replica of presidential leadership, making a strong case for the inadmissibility of the regime’s action and the crying need for a strong American and Western response. Over the next few days Kerry’s clarity was blurred repeatedly by statements emanating from the White House and Pentagon. What effect this uncertain trumpet may have had on the shocking, disgraceful, yet understandable vote in Britain’s parliament is not known, but the spectacle of the secretary of state making the case while other senior officials temporized and agonized is not one to which historians will assign high grades in the annals of presidential leadership.

Indeed, presidential uncertainty and talk of a loud but meaningless “shot across the bow” of the Assad regime no doubt leads some to believe that his call for a vote in Congress is less a bow to American constitutionality than a further attempt to kick the can down the road. This is why the president should have been prepared from the outset to make clear his desire to seek congressional approval. There is not a thing wrong with his official desire to act constitutionally, or his political desire to have a broad array of domestic accomplices. Yet the conclusion that he is motivated by skepticism and even disbelief in the endeavor itself, even if it is a patently unfair finding, is impossible to dismiss out of hand given his behavior over the past ten days and his approach to Syria over the past two years. It is a conclusion that, if permitted to grow roots, can have a corrosive effect on American credibility around the world. It is a conclusion whose dismissal is not facilitated by the president’s decision not to call the Congress into special session immediately.
Peter Wehner summarizes all the mistakes that Obama has made regarding Syria.
The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 

We can rehearse all these mistakes, but now Obama has asked Congressmen to vote and they will need to step back from the politics and make a decision on the basis of what is best for the United States based on the intelligence we now have. As Wehner writes,
So what is the best outcome we can reasonable hope for? What is the worst outcome we should be most prepared for? What are the odds of each one happening? How likely, and in what ways, will Syria retaliate? How reliable is the FSA? Is Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) “generally acknowledged to be the most effective force fighting al-Assad,” in the words of CNN’s Peter Bergen? If the (relatively) moderate rebels did receive the aid they need, what are their chances of success? And what would success look like? Taking control of Syria (which is hardly likely)? Taking control of parts of Syria? Participating in a coalition government? Comprised of whom?

These are just some of the difficult, and largely unknowable, questions one has to ask prior to endorsing a military strike.

There would be a significant cost to doing nothing in Syria. There could be significant benefits if we act militarily (including delivering a damaging blow to Syria’s sponsor states, Iran and Russia, as well as to Hezbollah). And it’s also possible that things could be worse–from the standpoint of America, Israel and the region–if Assad is attacked and/or overthrown and jihadists emerge in a dominant position. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”
Decisions like this are not easy. The intelligence and predictions of results are never dependable or clear. That seems to be why Obama is proposing such "narrow, limited action," but is not explaining why what he proposes would be anything more than a futile "shot across the bow."