Perhaps historians will provide a clear understanding of
Barack Obama's head-snapping decision to pause his
administration's urgent case for military strikes in Syria to seek the formal
authorization he says he doesn't need from a Congress he disdains.
Until then, the struggle to make sense of the Obama
administration's ad hoc decision-making and confusing rhetoric on Syria will
continue. The latest twist came Wednesday, when the president tried to explain
away his declaration last summer that "the red line for us" would be Bashar
Assad's use of chemical weapons. "I didn't set a red line," Mr. Obama said
during a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, claiming that he had been
speaking for the entire world—even Congress.
He was similarly considerate of Congress on Saturday,
when in announcing his decision he explained that he is "mindful that I'm the
president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy" and that the power of
America is "rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a
government of the people, by the people and for the people."
Mr. Obama hasn't always been mindful of such things,
boasting for three years of his willingness to disregard Congress. At Georgetown
University three months ago, Mr. Obama announced that he would bypass Congress
to address what he described as the urgent threat of climate change. Global
warming, he averred, "is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock.
It demands our attention now." He has done the same on immigration and the
economy. "If Congress won't act, I will," he has said.
Even on matters of war and peace, Mr. Obama has ignored
Congress. He didn't consult Congress before launching military strikes in Libya
in March 2011, and on the same day a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed suit to
force him to seek congressional authorization, the administration sent Congress
a 32-page report that included an explanation as to why the president could act
without legislative approval. The report argued that the limited campaign, which
featured no U.S. ground troops, was "consistent" with the 1973 War Powers Act
and does not "require further authorization."
It is therefore not surprising that congressional
Republicans, once likened to "terrorists" by Vice President Joe Biden, are skeptical that Mr. Obama's decision to seek
a legislative imprimatur on Syria grows out of a sudden interest in
bipartisanship and the constitution. That the president's longtime adviser,
David Axelrod, gleefully tweeted about the political implications—calling
Congress "the dog that caught the car"—only feeds the cynicism.
It isn't at all unreasonable to wonder whether Mr.
Obama's decision to go to Congress is little more than an attempt to share
responsibility with Republicans for authorizing an intervention that goes badly,
or to blame them for constraining him if they don't.
Nevertheless, the president's political maneuvering
alone shouldn't keep Republicans from supporting intervention. What should stop
them are doubts about his plans and competence. This is especially true for
hawks who might otherwise be inclined to support him.
When administration sources first leaked two weeks ago
the president's parameters for intervention, they said two criteria guided his
thinking: Military action would neither seek to alter the course of the war on
the ground nor target regime leadership. This was an odd declaration of
self-imposed restrictions, especially for a president who has said for more than
a year that Bashar Assad must go. And it invited an obvious question: What's the
point? The president elaborated when he told PBS's "NewsHour" that any strikes
would be a "shot across the bow" to the Assad regime.
But in announcing that his message is merely to send a
message, the president undermined his primary objective. A "shot across the bow"
implies further action if the warning is unheeded. In his repeated assurances
that any U.S. action would be "limited" and "tailored" and "narrow," Mr. Obama
has made clear that he has little appetite for escalation.
The decision to escalate is not his alone. As former CIA
Director Michael Hayden said Monday on CNN, there is a strong likelihood that
Assad and his patrons in Tehran will retaliate: "We want it to be one and
done—the president's made that very clear: Very limited strikes, very limited
objectives—deterring, degrading the potential use of chemical weapons. He's
doing it, our president, to show resolve . . . . But guess what, Assad and his
Iranian and Hezbollah allies are going to want to show resolve, too. They're not
going to want to give the United States a free ride for this kind of action."
The Iranians, Mr. Hayden says, will be "engineering some
kind of response." What will Obama do then?
Even Syrians who might benefit from U.S. military
intervention are apprehensive about the limited strikes telegraphed by the White
House. "A light strike would be worse than doing nothing," Abdel Jabbar Akaidi,
head of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo province, told Syria Deeply, a blog about
the conflict, this week. "If it's not the death blow, this game helps the regime
even more. The Syrian people will only suffer more death and devastation when
the regime retaliates."
On Aug. 20, 2012, Mr. Obama described his "red line" on
Syria. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime—but also to other players on
the ground—that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical
weapons being moved around or being utilized. That would change my calculus."
But when U.S. intelligence confirmed in June that Syria
had used chemical weapons, nothing changed. White House national security aide
Ben Rhodes declared that this breach of Mr. Obama's red line would trigger
"military support"—meaning lethal aid—from the U.S. to the Syrian opposition. On
Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry testified that the Syrian regime had used
chemical weapons 14 times.
The U.S. aid never arrived.
To believe that an Obama-led intervention will end well
requires disregarding everything he's done—or hasn't done—over two years in
favor of an illusory expectation that he'll act with newfound determination to
shape the outcome in a region ravaged by war. That's unlikely.
There are many reasons for the U.S. to intervene in
Syria: more than 100,000 dead, two million refugees, the repeated use of
chemical weapons by a dictator who sponsors anti-American terrorists and is the
puppet of a regime in Iran that is the world's foremost state sponsor of terror.
The moral imperative is clear; the strategic case is solid.
But a successful intervention requires a commander in
chief committed to changing the war's momentum and changing the regime in
Damascus. The White House has eschewed both. The only thing worse than not
intervening in Syria would be a failed intervention—an outcome that will make
future American interventions, by this president or another, in Syria or
elsewhere, even more difficult.
If President Obama exercises the authority he claims and
launches a serious campaign to end the slaughter in Syria and change the regime
in Damascus, Republicans should support him. Until he does, they should oppose
Mr. Hayes is a senior writer for the Weekly
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