On Saturday, President Obama surprised many, including his own senior advisors, by announcing that he would seek Congressional approval to engage in air strikes against the Syrian government as a response to evidence showing that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used Sarin gas in an August 21st attack.
It appears increasingly likely that Congress will vote against the measure or, at the very least, approve much narrower action than the Administration is seeking. If and when it does, it will give President Obama exactly what he wants: an excuse to keep America out of a no-win situation, and the ability to take the first step backward after decades of steadily-increasing executive war-making power.
Yeah, I know what he said. But bear with me.
Let’s not kid ourselves, President Obama isn’t exactly a fan of the United States Congress. He has bypassed our legislative body before, intervening in foreign conflicts that were arguably less pressing than the one currently taking place in Syria, without the Legislative Branch’s opinion. And even in seeking a Congressional vote on military action in Syria, the President maintained that he still has the legal authority to act, with or without their approval. In other words, if the President really felt like punishing Syria for using chemical weapons, he would have done so already.
Furthermore, this is a Congress that has proven historically incapable of getting anything done - even wildly popular ideas like background checks and immigration reform - and this particular proposal is a rarity in that it has bi-partisan opposition. And, as we learned with the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction package, the surest way to get Congressional Republicans to oppose an idea is to tell them that President Obama supports it. They have been dead-set on opposing every item on Obama’s agenda for the last five years; does he really expect them to give their stamp of approval on another unpopular military excursion in the Middle East?
What’s more, doing nothing is the right thing to do: The sad truth is that there is no American security interest in Syria, and no positive action we can take. If we intervene to aid the rebels - who are disorganized, united out of necessity rather than choice and not necessarily friendly towards us - we prolong the war and embolden the Syrian regime, likely leading to even more deaths. However, officially advocating a policy of doing nothing is a tacit endorsement of Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, a violation of international law. And the proposed air strikes, while not intense, secretive or rapid enough to do any real damage to Assad’s counter-insurgency, would move Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s recently-elected (and less radical) president, away from any potential bargaining table on the host of other, more pressing issues on the American foreign policy agenda.
Yesterday, Stewart Pollock argued that Iran is the reason why the United States would intervene in Syria: to send a message to Ayatollah Khamenei that the use of unconventional weapons will not be tolerated. But, as Stewart pointed out himself, “[the] Ayatollah evidently does not fear either implicit U.S. threats or very explicit Israeli ones—he is determined to have a nuclear deterrent.” Clearly, American signals mean little to Khamenei. Moreover, failing to punish Syria for using chemical weapons has very little bearing on our calculus when it comes to Iran and nuclear weapons, and Iran knows this; it’s a different country and a much different form of unconventional warfare.
Our best course of action with regards to Iran is to avoid alienating President Rouhani. His decisive electoral victory on a platform that included better relations with the West was significant for two reasons. First, that the election was allowed to take place at all, with a moderate candidate poised for a major victory, shows that the Iranian establishment found such a candidate palatable (at the very least). Second, Rouhani’s decisive and unchallenged victory has the potential to give him a mandate for reform and improved relations with the West. If, over time, Rouhani is able to solidify his position in the Iranian establishment, we could begin to see Iran gradually back away from its nuclear ambitions. Provoking the country now, as we would if we attacked Syria, could force Rouhani’s hand and lead him to abandon his moderate rhetoric/agenda, eliminating any chance of progress.
But while the American people have no security interest in Syria, they are growing increasingly weary of the United States entering into undeclared wars of choice. A recent NBC poll showed that 79 percent of Americans think that the President should be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria. Senator and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama also made incredibly forceful arguments against the use of unilateral military force. With little hope for passing climate change legislation, gun control or immigration reform during his second term it is possible, even likely, that despite the prior actions of his administration, President Obama wants to make restoring legislative checks on military use part of his legacy.
By seeking Congressional approval, and forcefully making the case for intervention, President Obama is goading Congressional Republicans into giving him an excuse to keep American cruise missiles out of Syria and avoid provoking a skittish Iran. And in deferring to the legislature, President Obama will ensure that future presidents will be expected to consult Congress before embarking on unilateral military excursions, and suffer the political consequences for failing to do so.
Please proceed, Congress.
(An earlier version of this post was published by the Kenyon Observer.)