Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
The most striking thing about Obama’s plans for Syria, both what he wants to do and the approval mechanism he has sought, shows that he is capable of thinking through problems freshly rather than just doing what always gets done in similar situations. Everyone was surprised that he wants to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons with a missile strike and went to Congress for an authorization he didn’t need. That shows why, if his luck holds, he will go down as one of the very able Presidents, the ones, like Polk and Truman, who made history rather than just responded to it, even if they were not able to craft a new vision of what a President is, the way the greatest of the Presidents, those being Washington and Lincoln and the two Roosevelts, did.
Consider first, what he might have done when Assad crossed the red line the first dozen times and not just this last time. Obama could have tilted ever more towards the “Free Syria” forces. He could have continually vetted them to see how much they were independent of Jihadists. He could have admonished them for any bad conduct, such as shooting prisoners, and had agents on the ground to monitor their activities. He could have treated the spigot of arms as subject to being turned on more or less depending on their good behavior, which would include their movement towards acceptable political goals, and their treatment of women, as well as their behavior on the battlefield. This is, in fact, what Thomas Friedman recommends, a voice that is respected enough so that he was quoted in Congress yesterday at the House Foreign Affairs Committee session and Secretary Kerry had to respectfully disagree. It is also the view of various Liberals, including Chris Matthews and numerous Congress people who have had enough of United States involvement in the Middle East unless it has to do with Israel, which is ever more isolated in the region but, paradoxically, ever more secure, because it is very clear that any serious attack on Israel, something more than a few missiles launched from Lebanon, let us say, would trigger a response by the United States along with Israel on the homeland of the aggressor.
Following advice to take sides in a civil war is a road we have travelled down before. What always happens is that the United States becomes the prisoner of the side we have taken. We try to shore up its incompetent military with advisors; we try to provide political advice so that our “client” regime has more legitimacy among its own people; we try to draw sharp lines on the ideological differences between the sides; and we make apologies for the shortcomings of the regime we back; all this going on until the American people are sick and tired of supporting a clearly failed effort. That is what happened in Vietnam when we supported one corrupt and incompetent South Vietnam government after another; it is what happened in Iraq, when we backed the Shiites only to find they were more interested in being Shiites than constitutional democrats; it is what happened in Afghanistan where we backed a government that is perfectly happy to bite the hand that feeds him. Korea, remember, was different. It was our troops that carried the burden of the battle and the war wasn’t a civil war but a way to readjust the dividing line between the two superpowers of the Cold War. So it didn’t matter that the South Korean government was weak or corrupt. They took the twenty years after the war to move from being a right wing authoritarian regime to becoming democratic.
The same thing that happened with all of those failed client regimes would happen if we backed the Free Syrian Army and whatever serves as its political arm. We would become their prisoners in that from that point onward it could always claim that it was moving as quickly as possible at fighting a war suitable for a democracy but was constrained by people outside its control and that a little corruption is necessary to keep the wheels turning. There might even be fewer atrocities for a while, but not so few that it would not shame us for backing them. They would claim that they could not be militarily successful without even more arm shipments of ever more lethal kinds. And should they get into power, they would have to share power with the Syrian groups that helped them get there. And why are we to believe that the Free Syrian Army is now so suddenly wonderful or “vetted”, as the phrase now goes, when that was not the case, as Secretary Kerry readily admits, not so long ago?
So try something else than backing a side. That is what Obama is proposing. He is going to take action on the basis of a collateral issue that has merit of its own: the use of chemical weapons by Assad. That is his reason, his justification, for intervention. He is not even going to take out the Assad regime, just take this option out of its political calculus. That may induce Assad to more readily come to Geneva, but as I understand it, it is the anti-Assad forces that can’t agree on a delegation. The Jihadists are strong enough to prohibit negotiations. American action, however, makes us an independent player, however much the casus belli is more than adequate, and so then we can more readily insist that the anti-Assad forces come to Geneva with or without the Jihadists, and we will deal with those people separately once a deal is struck between the other parties. The Obama scenario has some promise of making headway in the long run as well as doing what it says it is going to do, which is send a message to both Iran and North Korea and Assad that we mean business and are not to be trifled with, which is what has happened for the last decade in the Middle East, despite our bellicosity and the number of American troops killed and the sullying of the American reputation by atrocities committed not only on our watch but by us ourselves. The Iraqis had such contempt for us that they lost interest in killing Americans; they were more interested in killing one another. Leave them to it.
Obama has been equally imaginative in managing the domestic political side of this initiative in Syria. Let us say that he had launched his strike without Congressional approval. He would have done so in spite of the fact that the United Kingdom, our “lap poodle”, had not even gone along with us, and that the Arab League is not willing to support military action to stop chemical warfare. There would have been some satisfaction in Obama acting decisively and getting the deed done soon after the atrocity took place.
Let us say that the effort were successful: low collateral damage and no more chemical attacks and Assad shaken enough to talk a bit more about being willing to go to Geneva. That would not have kept the Republicans from carping that he did too much or too little or that he deserved to be impeached for either one or the other. There would have been no restraint in their rhetoric because such rhetoric would have cost them nothing, not even self respect in that they were acting simply as politicians and not as statesmen.
But bringing the issue to a vote in the Congress does put them on the line. What I have noticed is that very few of even the Conservative congress people on the House Foreign Affair Committee engaged in cheap shots against the President. I don’t know whether Boehner had counseled them to behave like grown ups or their role as statesmen required it of them, but the ones who behaved badly, like the guy who held up a photo of one of the people killed at Benghazi in what seemed to me remarkably passive aggressive behavior, looked like fools and hardly got much traction. The guy who asked whether Kerry trusted the Syrian opposition sounded like a fool, drawn as he was from behind his cover by his own interest in sounding like a fool. I thought Kerry should have invoked Kissinger’s dictum that diplomats are not psychologists. They don’t judge what people feel, only how they act. To think otherwise is to be naďve.
Bringing the case for interdiction to Congress brings it to the country, which is as it should be, especially if things go wrong, and there is more collateral damage than the media find acceptable or if some of the players decide to use the opportunity to settle scores with Israel. A Congress person can’t go back on his or her vote because it is recorded. Hillary was a hawk and Obama was a dove and that, as much as most things within her control, cost her nomination for President of the United States. (The skin color of her opponent was not in her control, and that fact, despite all predictions, worked to his advantage with certain white constituencies—proving one more time that strange are the ways of history.)
Moreover, think of this as a moment in United States Constitutional history. The War Powers Act says how long the President has before he has to inform Congress of what he is up to. Presidents have done everything possible to side step the War Powers Act so as to give themselves as much power as possible. But this is a case where there is time to deliberate and so is not the President obliged to go to Congress even if he has the authority to act on his own in an emergency? The President is invoking the real meaning of the war powers provision of the Constitution, which is that no major undertaking should take place without Congressional authorization because to do so sets up the President as a kind of king. Congress has been reluctant for a few generations now, for fear of what will happen in the next election, to exercise its authority on war, just as it refuses to assert its authority and leaves to the Supreme Court decisions about social issues such as homosexuality and abortion and civil rights. So Obama is calling Congress to task and insisting it do what it is constitutionally mandated to do. The War of 1812 was vigorously debated in the Congress before that war was undertaken. Henry Clay would not understand a Congress which shied away from or did not want that responsibility.
Obama is moving the American story forward in foreign affairs by distinguishing yet linking together the issues of regime change and weapons of mass destruction and he is also moving the story of the American Constitution forward by insisting that Congress take up its constitutionally mandated role of approving significant military engagements. I don’t know how this will play out. Congress may say no and the interdiction may go badly whether or not it has Congressional approval. But I do know that Obama makes me feel like I am living in the midst of history rather than listening to the lyrics of an old tune that is being sung off key where all anyone tries to do is relearn, one more time, why the tried and true tactics of foreign policy and American politics didn’t work out yet another time.