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Syria gamble

Ben Knight
September 1, 2013

US President Barack Obama caught allies and enemies by surprise when he announced he would seek congressional support for an attack on Syria. Is this dangerous dithering, or an astute political maneuver?

Image: Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

Even to the president's allies, it looked like an abrupt about-face. To his enemies, Obama's announcement at the White House on Saturday (31.08.2013) that he would seek Congress' approval for a missile strike on Syria was a humiliating retreat.

Only 24 hours earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry presented a powerful dossier of evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had committed a huge chemical weapons atrocity, and declared: "History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency."

That sounded like preemptive justification for a military response - but while refugees fled the Syrian capital and Assad moved his military targets to safer positions, Obama was changing his ever-cautious mind, and ended up splitting the middle ground.

"I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," he said in the Rose Garden on Saturday. "While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the situation in Syria at the State Department in Washington, August 30, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
"History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye," Kerry saidImage: Reuters

The decision was celebrated by one Syrian state-run newspaper as "the start of the historic American retreat," and drew similar ire from within the Republican Party. "President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents," said Peter King, a member of the House of Representatives, in a statement. "The president doesn't need 535 Members of Congress to enforce his own red line."

Huge gamble

But Obama received some succor as well from his political opponents. Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the move, saying, "The president's role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress."

Others took a less generous view of the president's strategy. "Holding a Congressional vote spreads the political risk and responsibility," Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told DW. "And if the president actually wants a way out of using force, then he's creating the possibility that the Congress will let him off the hook, with them taking the blame for any bad results rather than him."

Barry Pavel, international security analyst at the Atlantic Council and former director of defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council under both Obama and former President George W. Bush, also thinks the president is taking a big risk.

Former President Bill Clinton addresses delegates during the second session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 5, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Bill Clinton had fewer compunctions regarding congressional approvalImage: Reuters

"What if Congress says 'no'?" he said. "Then he's stuck. Either he can move forward with a limited military campaign, or he demurs, and then what's the impact on the foreign policy of the United States globally?" Pavel questioned. "Obama's second term, and indeed his legacy, is now put at stake based on this one decision."

"It's a considerable gamble, and the pay-off may be small," said James Lindsay, a CFR analyst on the domestic political aspects of US foreign policy. "Because getting Congress' approval on the take-off of the foreign policy doesn't guarantee that Congress will be with the president on the crash-landing of the foreign policy."

The historical context (at least post-World War II) underlines how startling Obama's decision is. "One-hundred-and-fifty Tomahawk [missiles]? Bill Clinton wouldn't have thought twice about that," John Pike, director of Washington think tank GlobalSecurity.org, told DW.

Pike called Obama's implied constitutional innovation "amazing." "There is simply no precedent in American history for that doctrine. [US presidents have] authorized the use of force on their own account over a hundred times."

Constitutional restriction?

On the other hand, some argue that the US constitution clearly limits the president's power to use military action. On Sunday, more than one media outlet pointed out that when Obama's first election campaign was starting in 2007, the Illinois senator and former constitutional law professor told a reporter: "The president does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

So is Obama simply staying true to a campaign pledge, or at least worrying that statements like this might be flung in his face? This is unlikely considering the president was not shy of using his executive power in Libya in 2011. Then, Obama went to war against Moammar Gadhafi's regime even though the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly against taking action.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stout (DDG 55) launches a Tomahawk missile in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn. (Photo: US Navy/Fire Controlman 2nd Class Nathan Pappas/ US Navy [c] dpa - Bildfunk)
Obama defied a congressional vote in striking Libya with cruise missilesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/US Navy

On top of that, there is the painful psychological legacy of the Iraq War. "The American public has for several years been struck by intervention fatigue," said Lindsay. "US troops have been in combat for almost a dozen straight years - that's the longest stretch of sustained military combat in American history."

Faith in Congress

On Sunday, there was much debate about how confident Obama is that Congress will back his wish to strike Syria. Pike cited a basic rule of politics: "You never ask a question the answer to which you do not already know."

That old truism was apparently forgotten last week when British Prime Minister David Cameron put the question to the House of Commons in the hope of getting a mandate to back a US strike.

"[Obama] is reasonably confident that the US Senate will approve, but the House is a toss-up at this point," Pavel told DW.

"We're a presidential republic, not a parliamentary democracy," concluded Pike. "Cameron is simply the leader of the government, while Obama is the commander-in-chief. But I don't think Obama knows how this vote's going to come out."

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