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The Situation in Syria

Sep 9, 2013

A colleague of mine had a bumper sticker on his Prius that read War is Not the Answer. One day I popped my head in his office door and asked, “Can you think of a three letter word for armed conflict?” He blurted out the obvious. “See,” I replied, “sometimes war is the answer.”

President Obama seems to think that war is also the answer if the question is this: what to do now that the Syrian regime crossed his (or someone’s) red line and used chemical weapons to murder hundreds of innocent people. The trouble is that we have very little idea of what the President is really proposing or how he understands the question.

The most sensible policy statement that the President could make would go something like this. Chemical weapons are more terrible than conventional weapons, especially for civilians. We want to prohibit their use by regimes such as Assad’s and the only way to do that is impose a prohibitive cost on those regimes.

That raises as many questions as it answers. To begin with, who are “we”? Not the United Nations. Russia and China will never go along. Not the U.S. and its most steadfast ally, Britain. PM David Cameron asked Parliament to endorse military action and Parliament handed him his head. Rest assured that the French are still on board. The Administration has decided, apparently, to ask Congress to authorize a military strike. They are making a full court press on that front right now. Unfortunately, the American people are more opposed to such an action than they have been to anything like it in the past. With an election little more than a year away, how many members of his own party will be there to back him up?

Another question is this. What kind of military strike will be sufficient to make Bashar al-Assad really, truly sorry? More to the point, what kind of strike will strike fear into the hearts of other cutthroats around the globe who might be sitting on their own chemical stockpiles? The President has three basic choices. He could attempt to do what he did in Libya: decapitate the regime. Or he could destroy Syrian airpower, which is the one thing that is keeping Assad’s head above ground level. The one would and the other might mean a rebel victory. With thousands of al Qaeda fighters in Syria, that means rolling a very scary set of bones. Finally, he could just lob a few tomahawk missiles at a few targets, announced well in advance. That would make Obama feel better about himself, but it would also demonstrate that the red line against the use of chemical weapons is like the speed limit in western Texas: just a suggestion.

It’s not clear what policy the Administration should pursue in Syria. It is abundantly clear that the Administration has spent two years without bothering much to formulate a policy. Secretary of State Clinton said that Assad must go back when it looked like Assad was going without any trouble on our part. That’s putting a wishbone where your backbone ought to be. There is no evidence that Mr. Obama and his team had any idea what to do to make those words meaningful or that they tried to figure it out later.

Then Mr. Obama famously said that any use of chemical weapons would cross a red line. That’s the kind of thing you want to say after you’ve got your allies behind you and you’ve assembled a coalition in both houses of Congress. Or at the very least, you want to start building your coalitions immediately afterward. Instead, Mr. Obama waited until the line had actually been crossed to finally start doing his job.

Obama’s critics frequently compare him to the unfortunate Jimmy Carter. That is unfair. To Carter. President Carter’s foreign policy was based on naïve assumptions about the motives of our enemies and it was so weak that he failed to respond in any remotely effective way when an American embassy was occupied by a hostile power. However, Mr. Carter did at least have policies and he worked very hard to formulate and implement them. Now, at the eleventh hour, we still have no idea what Mr. Obama’s Syria policy is and as far as one can tell neither does he.

The President’s view of his own war powers vis-à-vis Congress is no more coherent. He has presented the legislative branch with a resolution authorizing him to use military power against the Syrian regime. He has said, however, that he doesn’t need Congress’ consent to act and has refused to say whether he will act if he doesn’t get it. Why then is he asking for it?

Perhaps the most telling item in this story comes from The Politico.

Sunday, administration officials made the case to lawmakers that rejecting Obama’s war resolution would stain his credibility on the international stage.

That is no doubt true. It is also pathetic. He wants Congress to make an honest man out of him. Is it really within the powers of Congress to do this? Can they restore the President’s credibility when he has frittered it away with a year of dithering and missing-in-action leadership?

Asking for Congressional authorization only if the President believes at least one of two things. He might believe that he is legally required to seek such authorization. As we have seen, he explicitly rejects this. He didn’t bother to do so when he made war (excuse me, launched a kinetic military action) against Muammar Gaddafi. It would also make sense if he believes that he needs the endorsement of Congress for political reasons. After all, popular opinion seems dead set against him. A vote of confidence from Congress would help him make his case that he is doing the right thing, even if it is unpopular.

That only makes sense if he can be confident that the vote in both houses will go his way. If it doesn’t, it leaves him more vulnerable than if he had just gone ahead and launched his cruise missiles. Does he have any reason for confidence? Twenty-five Senators have announced that they will vote “no” or are leaning that way. Forty lean or have committed to voting “yes,” including John Thune. Since he needs sixty votes, he will have to bring over twenty votes from the undecided camp, which includes Tim Johnson. That looks doable, but it’s no sure thing.

The House is another matter. Two hundred and twenty four Representatives are “no” or lean toward no, a majority of six votes, including Kristi Noem. A mere thirty-five seem prepared to back the President. To win approval, Mr. Obama will have to bring swing about seven of the not-inclined to his side along with all one hundred and seventy-four of the undecided members. That doesn’t seem very likely at the moment.

It will be something unusual if the President fails to get the backing of Congress. It is no one’s fault but his own. He had two years to formulate a policy and build support for it at the UN, among our allies, on the floor of Congress, and among the American people. He bothered neither with the one nor the other. Now he is committed to an action that has the support of France, Turkey, and Albania.

No one has come to the Presidency, at least in modern times, as innocent of any experience at leadership as Barack Obama. It seems possible that he will leave office with that innocence intact. 


Editor's Note: Ken Blanchard is our political columnist from the right. For a left-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Cory Heidelberger every other Wednesday on this site.

Dr. Ken Blanchard is a professor of Political Science at Northern State University and writes for the Aberdeen American News and the blog South Dakota Politics.



09:04 am - Mon, September 9 2013
larry kurtz said:
You are way behind the news cycle, Ken. George W. Bush was foreign policy neophyte.

Someone needs to prove these alleged gas attacks were not conducted by Mossad or IDF.
11:14 am - Mon, September 9 2013
Roger Holtzmann said:
There are no good options in Syria. Period. Launch military strikes, bring down Assad, and put … who in power? A discordant group, including Islamists, who aren’t likely to be any friendlier to us in the final analysis. Or do nothing, let Assad prevail, and enable his regime to go on about its bloodthirsty ways. I actually sympathize with President Obama’s “dithering” because it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation if ever there was one. President Bush got Congressional and international support, then took decisive action on the basis of bogus intelligence and got us involved in two long, costly, inconclusive conflicts. Sometimes doing nothing is preferable to ill-advised action.

As for presidential versus congressional power over military action … that ship sailed a long time ago. Congress no longer has any power in this arena and it’s their own damn fault. They let Presidents Johnson and Nixon wage undeclared war for ten years and suffer no constitutional consequences. With each subsequent conflict (Grenada, Panama, Gulf War, Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) they’ve made a great sound and fury, about being involved but it has signified nothing. For better or worse, the president alone is deciding such matters. There is no going back because our feckless, dysfunctional Congress is incapable of asserting its prerogatives.
02:46 pm - Mon, September 9 2013
dave tunge said:
I think Putin has the right solution. Sell arms to the highest bidder and let the Islamists fight amongst themselves.
Any intervention in Mideast countries is pure folly. These guys always have to be fighting with someone, so why not let it be with their own kind. We cannot continue to be the world's watchdog and impose our administrations views on countries who don't want us there. All they need to know is that we will not tolerate direct attacks on us or our closest allies.
Sheesh............we can't even run our own country so what makes us think we can tell someone else how to do it..........isnt' that the UN's job?
04:12 pm - Mon, September 9 2013
larry kurtz said:
Hey, Dave: why should Israel not be disarmed for the same reasons? Chemical weapons are being used in South Dakota: where's the outrage?
10:45 am - Wed, September 11 2013
larry kurtz said:
Ronald Reagan used chemical weapons on students at Berkeley:

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