Last week, we wrote that President Obama was about to undertake the most reluctant military strike ever. Now, he has gone to Congress with the most backhanded request for the authorization of military force ever.
Secretary of State John Kerry had delivered two emotional justifications for military action that everyone took as a sign that an attack was imminent, when the president unexpectedly announced he had decided to ask for a congressional authorization (and without bothering to consult his secretary of state, who just happens to have been a senator for 28 years). The turnabout was so sudden it seemed to say more about the president’s irresolution than his desire to get congressional input. The president’s position is that, even if the measure is rejected, he might bomb Syria anyway.
He is embracing an expansive view of his authority while ignoring the reasons the Founders wanted a strong commander-in-chief in the first place. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the executive can act with “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch.” As he wavers and his administration leaks its target lists, President Obama is 0–4.
He is asking Congress to choose between unpalatable options. One is to green-light an attack on Syria that, as far as anyone can tell, is unconnected to any larger strategy, besides expressing a forlorn hope for a diplomatic solution to the war. The other is to turn him down and destroy the president’s credibility, and hence the nation’s, in the Middle East for at least the next three years. Obama would join David Cameron as the neutered leader of a country that was once feared and respected; François Hollande would practically look like a giant in comparison.
Credibility can seem an elusive commodity and one not worth firing shots over, but it is the coin of the realm in international relations, especially for a great power. When we eroded our deterrent with ill-advised statements or acts of weakness, we got the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When our deterrent was at a high ebb in the immediate aftermath of our toppling Saddam Hussein, Libya gave up its nuclear program and, evidently, Iran temporarily stopped its uranium production.
If we don’t act in this case, after all this windup, Iran and Hezbollah will take note of how little our admonitions to not acquire or use weapons of mass destruction really mean. We can’t know exactly what would come of our self-inflicted humiliation, but it would be nothing good. For that reason, we would vote “yes” on the authorization, although we think reasonable people can disagree, and we urge Congress to push the president to enunciate a Syria strategy beyond punishing it for its chemical-weapons use.
That act of punishment is important in itself, and we shouldn’t underestimate how much damage we can do to a fragile regime fighting a war for survival, even if the strike is only with cruise missiles over a matter of days. But a congressional authorization, should it be forthcoming, and the inevitable delay as Congress debates the matter, raise the stakes. Any strike shouldn’t be a pinprick or necessarily a one-off but part of a broader, longer-term plan to topple Assad and defeat his allies. This means strengthening elements of the Syrian opposition we can trust, with arms and training; it means crafting and leading an international coalition committed to a post-Assad Syria; it means staying engaged beyond the next few weeks.
We should do this without any unrealistic expectation for what we can achieve in Syria. A new regime could be better than Assad and still lousy. But the Obama policy of passivity has, so far, proved a disaster. Some on the right support it by citing the famous Henry Kissinger quip about the Iran–Iraq war that it is a pity that both sides can’t lose. If only it were that simple.
Across the years of violence, the opposition has gotten more radical rather than less; the Syrian state has begun to unravel, ensuring that even if Assad loses, Syria is guaranteed more chaos and misery; Jordan and Lebanon have been destabilized by the spillover effects of the conflict; and at least until now, Assad has been regaining the upper hand, with the help of a terrorist guerrilla army and a terrorist state — Hezbollah and Iran, respectively. Not to mention the gruesome humanitarian cost, with 100,000 dead and a third of Syria’s population displaced.
It is always tempting to believe that we can be done with the world. But the world is not done with us. It never is.