The Agenda

The Authorization of Force Resolution

If I were a member of Congress, I would vote to authorize the use of force in Syria.

Byron York explains why Republicans are reluctant to back the Obama administration on Syria. Ramesh Ponnuru has argued that the case for armed intervention in Syria is weaker than the case for the Iraq War. My sense is that GOP skepticism is warranted, and Ramesh’s objections are convincing in many respects. The strongest argument against supporting the president’s Syria policy was recently made by Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver. First, Feaver identified three distinguishable interests the U.S. and its allies might have with regards to Syria’s WMD arsenal, the third of which is the most important:

1. The humanitarian interest in deterring the use of these indiscriminate weapons on innocent Syrian civilians.

2. The security interest in reinforcing the long-standing global taboo against the use of these weapons.

3. The security interest in ensuring that Syria’s chemical arsenal stays under tight command and control and does not leak out to terrorists who might use them against U.S. interests, personnel, or the homeland.

In Feaver’s view, the intervention the Obama administration seems to have in mind is unlikely to advance this third interest: 

If the punitive strikes are heavy enough to tilt the balance of power in favor of the rebels, they hasten the day when the crumbling Assad regime loses control over the arsenal. If the punitive strikes are light enough not to hurt the Assad regime, they intensify the incentive of the rebels to gain control of the arsenal so as to inflict more proportional revenge on the regime. Already, the more radical rebel factions have claimed that Assad’s use of chemical weapons gives them the right to launch reprisal attacks in kind. Given the makeup of the rebel coalition, the United States probably would prefer that the Assad regime retain control over the arsenal, which is why it is likely any limited strikes would try to punish without crippling Assad.

The leakage problem should not be exaggerated. The portion of the Syrian chemical arsenal that consists of binary weapons — where the weapon is inert because the chemical agents are stored separately and only combined immediately prior to use — offers significant protection against unauthorized use. But no U.S. president could trust those technical measures indefinitely, and so a breach in the custody of the Syrian chemical arsenal, particularly one that resulted in the radical Islamist groups gaining custody of the weapons — whether the AQ-linked rebel groups or the Assad-supporting Hezbollah terrorist group — would rightly be deemed a grave threat to U.S. national security.

Only the options that the Obama administration has appeared to rule off the table — massive aerial bombardment of the depots themselves or boots on the ground to secure the depots — stand much chance of delivering on this third and more important interest.

It would be ironic if the chemical issue catalyzed U.S. intervention in Syria, but at a level that would not address what the United States cares most about concerning the chemical arsenal. [Emphasis added]

Steve Coll offers measured support for an armed intervention, focusing on the notion — which Feaver also addresses — that a failure to enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons “would likely lower the threshold for chemical use in this and future wars.” Like Feaver, however, I’m skeptical that the intervention the president has in mind would really bolster the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, as other rogue actors may well conclude that the foot-dragging that preceded an intervention is a more relevant piece of information than the intervention itself.

One of the more provocative cases for backing the president comes from James Ceaser, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, who argues that Republicans should support an authorization of force resolution even if they are deeply skeptical about the wisdom of such an intervention:

They should do so even if they think that the President’s policy will prove ineffective, do no good, waste money, or entail unforeseen risks; they should do so even if they think he has gotten the nation into this situation by blunders, fecklessness, arrogance, or naiveté; and they should so even if, and especially, if they have no confidence in his judgment. The simple fact is that the nation and our allies will be at further risk if the world sees a presidency that is weakened and that has no credibility to act. The simple fact is that the nation and our allies will be at further risk if the world sees a presidency that is weakened and that has no credibility to act. Partisans may be tempted to see such a result as condign punishment for the President’s misjudgments; they may feel that he deserves to pay the price for his hypocrisy and cheap and demagogic attacks on his predecessor. But at the end of the day, Republicans need to rise above such temptations; the stakes are too high. The weaker the president’s credibility on the world scene, the more the need to swallow and do what will not weaken it further. President Obama is the only president we have. That remains the overriding fact.

I agree with Ceaser. That is, though I think the intervention the president has in mind is unlikely to have its intended effect, and though I think the Obama administration has been exceedingly reckless, Congress finds itself with two extremely unattractive options: support a president who instills little confidence or undermine his position internationally. 

I’ve left aside the question of what an intervention in Syria ought to look like, or what the endgame should be. It should go without saying that I’m not the right person to ask, though I do have gut instincts, which haven’t always served me well. I’ll note that Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War has a new op-ed challenging the thesis that the Syrian opposition has been dominated by dangerous Islamists, and I’ll share something Peter Feaver said back in March:

“Because we toppled Saddam Hussein we were morally and politically responsible for cleaning up the mess that remained, but in Syria we are facing a similar challenge — a sectarian and civil war could will spill over its borders and destabilize the entire region,” said Feaver a special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council from 2005-2007.

“We didn’t invade Syria but we may end up having to pay a comparable price in managing the security challenges that result,” said Feaver, who also directs the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and Duke’s Program in American Grand Strategy.

Whether we like it or not, the consequences of the Syria crisis will reach us, most likely through refugee outflows that are putting intense pressure on Jordan, Turkey, and other neighboring states, and which are even reaching countries as far afield as Australia. The conflict in Syria is at its heart a sectarian conflict, and the greatest long-term danger is that Syria’s religious minorities, particularly its Alawite and Christian communities, might face genocidal violence. Many of the soldiers fighting for the Assad regime are doing so not out of any love for Baathism, but out of a desire to protect their ethnoreligious communities. If there is going to be a durable settlement in Syria, it will involve either extreme decentralization or outright partition. Getting from here to there should be our lodestar. 


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