Serious Questions about the Syria Question

by John Lawrence

For thirty years, the specter of Vietnam hung over every major U.S. foreign policy decision involving the use of force, and for more than a decade, the ghost of Iraq has haunted policy makers.  Only time will tell whether the forthcoming debate and decision on involvement in Syria, in response to the use of chemical weapons by the government and troops of Bashar al-Assad, adds another chapter to the history of questionable responses to military provocations.

Critics of President Obama’s decision to embrace a military response, but seek congressional authorization before launching the assault, are piling on, challenging the President for not having intervened sooner, for telescoping his planned actions, and for giving Congress the opportunity to debate and possibly oppose intervention.  Already, Syria’s government has been guffawing about an “historic American retreat” as Congress weighs its role and response.

There are many issues and implications to be discussed, both for Obama, the Congress, and the international community.  The outcome of the coming debate, and the military action which seems all but certain to follow, will have serious political implications for the future of the Obama Administration, the 2014 elections, and even the 2016 presidential race.

Any senator or representative who rejects the need for a vote should really hand in their voting card and find a new line of work.  Regardless of whether Obama needed to involve the Congress in the decision – and it was undoubtedly the right call – there is no credible way for a legislator to challenge the need for a congressional debate and vote.  While Congress has not exercised its constitutional role in formally declaring war since 1941, the late 20th and 21st century equivalent – authorizing the use of military force by the President – is well established.  

One key question is the credibility and thoroughness of the information on which a decision will be made.  There are tragic examples where Administrations have either misrepresented to Congress, or worse, to secure authorization for military action, particularly the Gulf of Tonkien Resolution and the Iraq WMD distortions.  In the current case, Obama is relying on independent validators to establish that WMDs were used against Syrian civilians, an important improvement over the self-certification by past Administrations. 

The coming congressional debate will be wide-ranging and filled with political implications.  That debate should begin without further delay. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand why a military response is needed to deter further murderous action by Assad, in defiance of international agreements, while also waiting for a week until the Labor Day barbeques and August CODELs are neatly wrapped up.  If the situation is urgent enough to warrant military action, Congress should be back at work this week.  The Senate plans hearings; clearly, Speaker Boehner should call the House back without delay.

It will be critical for supporters of the President’s request to reinforce  that the current decision is quite different from the question of why we have not intervened earlier in the Syrian conflict.  The fragmented Syrian opposition, with many competing factions that detest and distrust each other almost as much as they oppose Assad, has presented a formidable barrier to U.S. military engagement.  For all the war-whooping by Sens. John McCain, Lindsay Graham and others, no serious Syria expert has been able to ascertain who will emerge as the de facto leader of a post-Assad Syria.  Uncertainty on that crucial point has more than justified Obama’s caution on earlier direct U.S. involvement.  Even the provision of arms is fraught with peril given the connections of some of the opposition groups to Al-Qaida and other sworn enemies of the United States and allies in the region.

Obama and his supporters will have to be clear that the current call for involvement does not presume to commit the U.S. to a broader military role in the Syrian civil war, only to inflict punishment for the use of WMDs.  Failure to clarify the goal of intervention will leave critics free to decry the “failure” of the operation for not toppling Assad, although the U.S. action could undermine his military and political strength 

There are multiple implications for domestic politics.  Republicans who have been loathe to authorize Obama even to issue waivers for the No Child Left Behind law are now being called upon to authorize him to take military action that might precipitate longer term involvement for which they would share responsibility.  A vote to grant Obama such authority, moreover, has the indirect impact of acknowledging his presidential leadership at a crucial time in the maneuvering around the Continuing Resolution and Debt Ceiling debates that are the top priorities when Congress returns, once the Syria decision is resolved.  If one is prepared to trust the President on crucial issues of war and peace, it becomes more difficult for Republicans to precipitate a government shutdown or default on international debts without appearing even more petty than in the past.

Speaker Boehner knows full well it is his responsibility to produce the Republican votes, and he doubtless has been provided extensive intelligence information justifying the authorization that Obama seeks.  As in almost every significant vote of the past two and a half years, however, the question is whether Boehner has the capability of persuading recalcitrant Republicans to deliver votes in support of legislation sought by the President.  There is a sizable portion of the Republican Conference which cannot bring itself to embrace anything Obama wants, and which will be loathe to cast a vote that will constrain their ability to be critical down the road.

Boehner’s problems likely mean that House Democrats will, once again, be needed to provide sufficient votes to grant Obama the authorization he seeks.  That will not be an easy task for the Democratic Leadership either.  A portion of the Caucus is skeptical about new military involvement that could metastasize into a deeper, more costly war, creating additional pressure to lift the sequestration caps on the Pentagon and impose further squeezes on domestic spending.   There are more than a few House Democrats who resent the lack of consultation by the White House on a host of issues since they lost the majority in 2010, and are fatigued at having to compensate for Boehner’s chronic inability to deliver GOP votes. And there are Democratic politics: the House Caucus is very much the product of the Vietnam-Iraq-Afghanistan experiences, and remains wary of military involvement, particularly when the strategy and likely outcome are as murky as they appear in Syria.  Over 120 House Democrats voted against going to war against Saddam Hussein in 2002, and very few of them, if any, look back on that vote with regret.  In fact, the regret comes from those who feel they erred in giving George Bush the authority to attack Iraq despite well-voiced doubts about the credibility of the evidence of Hussein’s WMDs 

No one likely recalls the political ramifications of that vote more than Hillary Clinton, who paid a heavy price in 2008 for her vote in favor of war with Iraq, and whose fate in 2016 could also be affected by the coming votes and military activity.  The questions being raised about the Obama Administration’s vacillating course on Syria over the past few years will certainly be focused, at some point, on the former Secretary of State.  What role did she play in the formulation and implementation of that policy?  What culpability can Republicans (or potentially, Democratic rivals) place with her for the lack of a clear U.S. strategy?  These will be crucial questions as critics and the press begin the inevitable process of dissecting Clinton’s record as Secretary of State, one which supporters reflexively salute as exemplary, but which has yet to be examined in the context of a campaign, let along expanded U.S. involvement in Syria. 

Finally, there are substantial implications for the 2014 congressional elections as well.  If Obama is weakened either by congressional opposition to action in Syria or by our becoming embroiled in yet another Middle Eastern war, the negative ramifications for Democrats could be significant.  If Republicans are perceived as playing politics with an issue of national security in order to foist blame on the President or weaken his hand in deficit and debt ceiling negotiations, their already anemic approval numbers could crumble further, to the advantage of Democrats 

The great unknown is whether Obama would proceed with military action even if Congress were to vote against authorizing him to do so.  In all likelihood, that is not a scenario that will occur since at the end of the day, the votes likely will be there in Congress, but barely.  But if not, Obama may well have tied his own hands; it is one thing to act without Congress’ approval, but unprecedented to act when Congress has voted against granting such power.  FDR faced congressional resistance to providing aid to Britain prior to Pearl Harbor, and he enjoyed strong public approval and control of Congress, not to mention a war that unquestionably involved U.S. allies and strategic interests.  A decision by Obama to launch a military attack on Syria in the wake of a disapproval vote in Congress would, beyond any doubt, launch hearings by House Republicans happy to promote a political, if not constitutional, crisis.

To avert that crisis and to ensure a victory in the forthcoming vote, Obama must convince the Congress and the country that genuine U.S. strategic interests are involved in punishing Assad, if not deposing him.  If an attack is payback for Assad’s violation of international law, Obama faces a formidable task in explaining why the international community is unprepared to become engaged, and why it falls to the U.S. alone to respond to the use of WMDs. Why would other countries ever agree to become engaged in police actions if the U.S. is prepared to unilaterally accept the cost of enforcing international agreements?  And how will a U.S. attack change the behavior of a tyrant already willing to butcher thousands of his own civilians despite international condemnation?

Many weighty and troubling decisions to be made, with significant strategic and political ramifications, not to mention the thousands of human lives at stake.  Probably time for Congress to return from vacation.