Why I think President Obama doesn’t really want to attack Syria

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.

Syria via Shutterestock

Syria via Shutterestock

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.

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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.)

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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61 Responses to “Why I think President Obama doesn’t really want to attack Syria”

  1. MystikWizard says:

    Jon, I think you hit the nail on the head with your thoughts. Well-written and reasoned article.

  2. lynchie says:

    Your post borders on racist. I have no fear of people here in the country other than the 1% and the congress who are bought and paid for. I think we are headed for martial law and a true police state but it will be interesting if Obama attacks when congress says No.

  3. HelenRainier says:

    I will admit I voted for him twice; considering who the Repubs had nominated (McCain/Palin followed by Romney/Ryan), he was the more palatable option.

    I would also add one more country to Israel and Egypt — Saudi Arabia.

  4. Not4striking Syria says:

    I believe this and I encourage all American State Side to Prepare, Beware and do not hate the innocent…President OBAMA better not try to do something around 9/11/2013….and if he goes ahead with any type or involvement that involves weapons and striking Syria: Our own nation, states, cities, suburbs, communities, neighborhoods, Facilities and Public Utilities…better be on a Code Orange or High Alert. The wanna bees, the true haters and rebels that support what we do not, will strike here again on our soil. Many people on our soil, some citizens, some not want to tear down our US Flag and raise another, they want to make another language primary and disrespect our constitution When our own government becomes ” a hot mess”, those that came here just to get free access and multiply and take over, yet use a system (because our government allowed it!) to evolve their own non democratic system…It will happen when Obama surges with the go. It scare the heck out of me, but I will fight and US TRUE Loving Americans, will win and we do not a President that is a sell out !

  5. Not4striking Syria says:

    I love being American and I am a Veteran and I know that many of our own illegal alien problems and financial problems are “The Upper Governments Fault”; I also believe that most economical failures were planned at least 7 years before they took place and will continue to be done in a planned manner. We need to help US the us in the States and stay out of this Syrian Assad Regime. They want to fight their own war on the majority, and as much I feel we should help within my heart….It will not do anything in the least and at the most we will cause more problems for everyone. Why isn’t one of the Other ARAB Nations seeking to assist without our support?????
    Whether the US is Broke (which I know we are not;), or War Weary (we are stock piled for years to come, the greedy just keep the $$$$$ to control our own people). It is not our war, and we need to work on settling things like the two ignorant parties disagreeing on the hill like children fighting over desert. Let us send Commander OBAMA and “The Governing Suits” to do this attack! And when they return tell them……Oh so sorry, you no longer have jobs and we have filled your positions with real working people that can make sound and fair decisions. OBAMA is an Intelligent man, he just is not right for Presidency by his personal choices. It seems as if the US is turning into the REFUGEE Camp for the world to blame, hate, use, never pay back debts and get free handouts. We can love the world, but a fool gives everything up and finds themselves with nothing! ( I am not talking about being caring and sharing) NWO is on it’s way and you know who is giving us the free ticket. Leave Syria alone Mr. President and settle the home issue with the Rep. and the Dem. Show the World what we can be by raising the US BAR; Let others fight their wars and quit giving other countries our hard earned money and weapons so they can turn on us!

  6. Not4striking Syria says:


  7. Not4striking Syria says:

    wink on that one: Key words …Israel and Egypt. Remember Obama went to Egypt last year and had one of his so called talks….It obviously did not help. Much of what he says is the opposite of what he does or means. Like OBAMA CARE it is about collecting $$$$$$ and using it somewhere else……He is not a party, he is a man whose studies should have put in foreign affairs, not as President of the US…he is selling us out. Most of the people that voted for him were, Minorities that wanted a Minority President and or believe in free for all without any responsibility or were just Democrats and could not get that hand to vote for a Mormon….

  8. Not4striking Syria says:

    LIke Obama cannot keep a secret: We have CIA operating in every area that is populated with Humans: Covert, Assigned, Contracted, just for now, do this and we will give you this just this one time; Third Party, Traitors and basically we have quite a few operative in Syria….I am surprised Mr. Big Mouth OBAMA has not alerted CNN with they longitude and latitude and face photo. Seriously this is a 3 way plan..whether we attack now or not, the plan is deeper…it involves Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and all surrounding countries…..and even Indonesia due to it Islamic foundations and large entity. Obama was picked years ago and all the terrible world issues were planned….some of these Playstation 3 games are an example of where the US is headed. My best weapon is to pray and do not worry….OBAMA will be removed, it is just a matter of time and before his time is up. Not in a negative manner, he will blank up so bad, his family will have to be covertly moved and protected.

  9. Winger Sauce says:

    Dude. You nailed this. I’ve been saying the same thing for a while now. People think I’m nuts but I think they just lost a game of chess.

  10. douglas01 says:

    I hope to hell your analysis is correct.

  11. Bill_Perdue says:

    Troll is the name universally given to people who disagree with you. It’s a non-word defining a non-person.

  12. Ford Prefect says:

    This post is utterly delusional. Congress doesn’t get anything done? This is being stated by a poli sci major? Wow. (Nota bene: They get lots of things done, just precious little we can point to as “good”)

    Obama doesn’t want to attack Syria. That’s why he announced he was doing just that, regardless of how congress votes? (He attacked Libya, after all, even after congress voted against him.)That’s why he wrote up an AUMF that allows him to attack Iran as well? That’s why congress is almost certain to approve his little misadventure?

  13. willardcottrell says:

    Once again we debate our stupid foreign policy of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I say, let them work it out on their own. If there are unintended consequences – so be it. The loss of life and the many disruptions for the refugees etc is deplorable. BUT we have proven to the world – if not ourselves – that we really can’t change the direction of animosity in that region.

  14. Henry Goldberg says:

    What we need are demonstrators in gas masks in front of every Syrian embassy and consulate in the world including Moscow and Beijing.

  15. lynchie says:

    Obama admitted the CIA has been operating in Syria.


    So all the push back to congress about boots on the ground is bullshit. We are doing what we always do support a bunch of thugs to overthrow a government using CIA operatives then try to get the new despots to like us. This is about Russia and Syria and Iran and the U.S. wants the oil in Syria and Iran. Our men and women will get involved and killed, but who can see that coming?

  16. HelenRainier says:

    Karma doesn’t need to prove anything to you, Guest. Karma has been posting for here for a long, long time.

  17. HelenRainier says:

    Karma is NOT a troll.

  18. HelenRainier says:

    Agree, Zor. There are very few of them who are worth what we pay them to do.

  19. HelenRainier says:

    I was not impressed with Kerry’s statement about this at all. It seemed to be filled with weasel words — long on speculation and short on facts.

  20. HelenRainier says:

    Let’s be honest — Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t — especially with this do-nothing, incompetent Congress.

  21. HelenRainier says:

    Follow the money. America exports a lot of heavy duty military hardware to Israel. Who would the MIC sell their arms to if we didn’t export to them?

  22. HelenRainier says:

    “If we intervene to aid the rebels…” We are aiding the rebels and have been for almost two years now. We should have never tossed our hat into the ring with the rebels. Assad’s government is considered a non-sectarian government and the rebels would like to impose an Islamic theocracy based upon sharia law.

  23. Christine Gojar says:

    Politics? Like what Oggatha Christie said, if congress approves, the blame for what will most likely be a badly managed interference will be diffused and it won’t entirely be obama’s fault. He’s doing the proper thing asking congress for permission because America needs to look like its doing something to retain the US’ image as a world superpower able to influence international events, even if Obama doesn’t actually want to drag the country into another war it doesn’t really have much business in. Reminds me of chess, it’s a bluff or bait.
    He’s trying to please everyone while hoping he won’t need to do anything after all! At least that is if this analysis is accurate. :) I hope it is and I hope your congress says no too. The US should give Americans and the world a break from its meddling.

  24. Rob Dowdy says:

    He is not a troll! Who ever said every liberal had to be enamored of the establishment whenever “we” happen to be in charge?

    I disagree with him on this. Has Obama been perfect? Of course not. But I think he’s had a very difficult task, dealing with an unprecedentedly obstinate opposition, and I feel that turning him out of office is a bit extreme.

    So karmanot might be outspoken and in the minority on the issue here, but he’s damn well thought through his opinions and isn’t just trying to ruffle feathers or stir the pot.

  25. Stratplayer says:

    I heartily agree with you that Karmanot is an excellent, incisive commenter and no troll, but I do kinda find the “Obozo” thing a bit offputting. Sorry, K! I’m a fan!

  26. ARP says:

    Please answer my question in what way has the president engaged in the following behavior: “To avoid the unpleasantness of democracy he has used the unitary Presidency the way an absolute monarch does, and consistently gets away with it.” What king/monarchy activities has Obama engaged in that others have not? I’d appreciate it your reasoning and not simply Google’s. Or are you suggesting that every crackpot theory put on Google is true and a legitimate argument.

  27. ARP says:

    Still waiting on your answer. You are not a troll, prove it now by backing up all your arguments about kings, impeachment, etc.

  28. ARP says:

    Sorry, I assumed anyone that says Obozo and makes reference to a monarch was trolling and not interested in a discussion.

  29. karmanot says:


  30. Moderator3 says:

    You have some excellent points, except one. Karmanot is not a troll.

  31. zorbear says:

    I think we should impeach every elected official in Washington, for a start. We can get to the local idiots later. But that’s just me…

  32. Ray says:

    For someone who doesn’t want to Attack Syria he is certainly going full speed ahead with the war propaganda.

  33. Obsidia says:

    I agree. It might not be a conscious feeling, but somewhere inside, I think that President Obama may be doubting that violence will solve anything. He’s casting about for some ideas. The war machine is slowing down…..

  34. brenth says:

    Israel can handle Assad. Israeli taxpayers should fund their own protection and not lean on our military to do their expensive dirty work.

  35. nicho says:

    If Obama doesn’t want to bomb, why is John Kerry going around telling blatant lies? Doesn’t he work for Obama? However, all that matters is what AIPAC wants. That’s what Obama will do.

  36. nicho says:

    Who are you again?

  37. I think he may just be wagging the tail to say “see we wanted to, he’s not a wimp!”

  38. I agree with you 100%. Well put.

  39. benb says:

    We have forces on alert and ready to strike in the area. I wonder if Obama hasn’t warned Assad and informed the rebels that we will take immediate action–without waiting for Congress—if there’s an imminent danger of another chem. attack. Much more acceptable to stop one from happening.

  40. karmanot says:

    I don’t believe I mentioned a Constitutional basis, but there is one, and that one is covered quite well—-Google time! The fact that other presidents have committed criminal acts is hardly an inducement for moral hazard. You do have a knack for positing a false argument and then arguing with yourself. I wouldn’t call that trollish, but it comes close to ogre-ish.

  41. Indigo says:

    I still don’t think impeachment is justified. I do think, however, that he’s continuing the Bush legacy without reflecting on the long-range implications of what he’s doing. That worries me. If he goes ahead with a missile response against the Syrian government, I’m definitely taking my magnetic Obama sticker off the car. Maybe I’ll replace it with a DisneyWorld sticker just for the irony.

  42. Indigo says:

    Scarcely a troll. Karmanot has been commenting on AmBlog for a good long time with carefully considered positions. I’m not in agreement about impeachment but that’s not the point (unless you are an Obamabot?). Legitimate discussion here is reasonably civil. You’ll pick it up as time goes on. Or go away.

  43. cole3244 says:

    rose colored glasses can make you see what you want to see.

  44. ARP says:

    I see you’re a troll, but will give you a chance. Can you give me some examples of the unitary presidency that previous presidents did not engage in?

  45. ARP says:

    You act as if Congressional authorization will stop the criticism. It will not. Remember when Republicans attacked Obama on Medicare, the program they essentially wanted to dismantle? No, if Obama attacks, even with congressional approval he’ll “mismanage the war,” “overstep his approval,” “not do enough,” etc. If he doesn’t receive congressional approval, he’ll be criticized for being weak on terror because he did not act.

    Iran isn’t much of a concern here as they know firsthand the impact of chemical weapons and have spoken out against their use (without naming names).

  46. Oggatha Christie says:

    At least if it actually goes through, Obama’s thinking, “If I go down on this decision, at least I’m taking you bastards with me.” But hopefully Congress will take the bait & vote no.

    Coming from America’s west coast, I’m a bit more concerned about the radioactive waters lapping at our shores from Fukushima’s over two-year-plus leakage. I’m amazed how they’ve been keeping the recent massive fish & seal die-offs secret.

  47. brenth says:

    I agree, but one problem, namely, if Obama were opposed why risk the
    Congress approving another war by just telling the forces pushing
    intervention “F*uck no!”? This begs the question, can Obama or any
    President stand up to those seeking perpetual war and say no?

  48. 2patricius2 says:

    Jon, I hope you’re right.

  49. Houndentenor says:

    And this will be an issue in both parties’ 2016 primaries. That’s exactly why we haven’t heard a peep from HRC.

  50. Houndentenor says:

    This is the first issue in years that isn’t going to split along party lines. (Actually the NSA objections didn’t split that way either.)

  51. kwd says:

    I would agree with you if not for SoS John Kerry’s seeming determination to sell this debacle. I do hope that you are right, though.

  52. perljammer says:

    Both Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House have declared support for the President’s plan. In the rank and file, it’s a different story so far. Among members who have declared a position (and most, by the way, have not declared), opposition among Republicans is much stronger than opposition among Democrats.

    In my own state of California, both Democratic Senators Boxer and Feinstein, and Representative Pelosi are among the handful of Congresscritters who have voiced enthusiastic support. Most are saying ‘no’ or undecided.

    Senate breakdown: http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/09/politics/syria-congress-vote-count/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

    House breakdown: http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/09/politics/syria-congress-vote-count/house.html?hpt=hp_t1

  53. Jon Green says:

    fixed – thanks for the catch!

  54. karmanot says:

    Obozo ‘IS’ a big liar.

  55. karmanot says:

    You have a good argument. Obozo’s been credited with some 11ty dimensional acumen for brilliant strategy, but in fact consistently displays entangled lies, incompetence and deviousness. To avoid the unpleasantness of democracy he has used the unitary Presidency the way an absolute monarch does, and consistently gets away with it. He stepped into his own overreach this time to lose all credibility. Obama needs to be subject to impeachment.

  56. Bill_Perdue says:

    As expected, the Republicans want to kill more Arabs and muslims and are gleefully supporting Obama’s plans to do so; “WASHINGTON (AP/ABC7) – The two leading members of the House of Representatives – Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor – will support President
    Barack Obama and his call for military strikes on Syria.”


  57. Bill_Perdue says:

    They also agree on the need to gut Social Security and Medicare and to bust unions, among other things.

  58. Robert Martin says:

    Slight correction to your article. It is Ayatollah KHAMENEI and not KHOMENEI. Khomenei was the first Ayatollah (the one who led the Iranian revolution) and died in 1989 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruhollah_Khomeini). Khamenei (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ali_Khamenei) took over leadership upon Khomeini’s death and has been in that position since. The names are REALLY close to each with a one letter difference so I can understand the mistake.

  59. Thom Allen says:

    I was wondering what the Republicans would do when faced with this choice. They’d have to decide between their hatred of Obama and all things Obama, and support for a new war, thereby generating billions for big business. And it will be a war, not just a one time only, surgical strike. McCain and his war buddies are already advocating to prohibit placing limits on the nature of this operation (e.g. don’t prohibit landing ground troops). They, and the Democrats who support this misguided idea, don’t seem to be thinking about the recent history of the Gulf Wars, Iraq, Afghanistan. The losses of hundreds of thousands of lives, the dead and wounded American veterans who come back, perhaps injured, unable to find jobs, who receive less than optimal medical care and lack of support (remember the Walter Reed scandal?). The Republicans are obviously obeying their business masters and are putting their Obamaphobia on the back burner temporarily while they seek to increase profit margins for their sponsors.

    If the Middle East needs policing, there are many local countries who should be available to do it. And there are a number of other nations that have spoken out against Assad who should be willing to put their munitions, personnel and money into the proposed action.

  60. emjayay says:

    Bi-partisan opposition? Yes. Also bi-partisan support.
    Congress opposed everything Obama wants to do? Yes, but one thing Republicans have always wanted to do is

  61. perljammer says:

    Obama has lobbied hard for some kind of punitive action, and even after saying he would seek Congressional approval, said he didn’t need it. How, then, would he get political cover if Congress doesn’t give him the approval he says he doesn’t need? Are we to believe this is one of those mythical multi-dimensional chess games?

    Senate and House leadership seem to be supporting the action. Whether that will be translated into rank and file support remains to be seen. The latest Congressional polling data from CNN shows fairly strong support in the Senate and fairly strong disapproval in the House, with most of the support in both bodies coming from Democrats; but the majority of members in both bodies say they’re undecided.



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