Obama’s congressional Syrian gambit

By J Brooks Spector 1 September 2013

It was an unexpected move, even a bold one. It came just days after the British Parliament had, by a narrow margin, rejected supporting a punishment attack on Syria because of its reported use of chemical warfare on its own population as part of an effort to quell an on-going rebellion against the Assad regime. US President Barack Obama spoke to his nation – and the world – on Saturday afternoon on the Syrian situation and the US response. But rather than hearing an announcement of the imminent launch of cruise missiles towards targets in Syria, Obama’s multiple audiences heard he was going to ask Congress to debate, discuss and then, hopefully, authorize him to carry out such an attack in his role as commander in chief. What’s going on here? J. BROOKS SPECTOR unpacks this turn of events.

The original strategy seemed to have been to be to build the wall of a coalition one brick at a time – the UK, then France, then other NATO allies like Italy, Germany and Turkey and then some of the Arab League members. All of this would have been organized so that even if the West couldn’t get a supportive resolution out of the UN Security Council denouncing the Syrian government and calling for appropriate action (Russia and China both being extremely unlikely proponents of such a measure) the US and its allies could still point to all the other support.

On that basis they could have said a significant share of those who really counted had put their collective heads on the line over the need to punish the use of chemical weapons against a country’s own population. And then, under that scenario, after the US had positioned several cruise missile-carrying warships in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Obama administration could send its ship-based cruise missiles and aircraft-launched smart bombs on their way to targets inside Syria. First military command-and-control sites, and then anti-aircraft missile systems that would degrade the Syrian government’s ability to control its forces or own its airspace. That certainly wouldn’t win the rebellion for the insurgents, but it would send a profoundly unsettling message to the Assad regime that chemical weapons were definitively off the table, and it might even offer sustenance for the morale of those same insurgents.

But the British House of Commons put the proverbial spanner in the works, voting against any initial support by the UK for a US attack. Although it was a close vote (and the government obviously could have won had the majority party’s whips actually been able to insist on a party-line vote by the two parties in the coalition government), it went against the Cameron-Clegg government. As a result, Prime Minister David Cameron announced afterwards that since the UK was a democratic society, his government would accept the voice of the people’s representatives, as well as that of a British population not particularly in favour of any action against Syria either.

Given that as background, it still came as a surprise to many that Obama, rather than to announce from the White House that the missiles were about to fly, chose instead to call upon Congress to endorse a proposed airstrike and that only with their support would his administration carry it out. Of course, this conforms to one way of looking at the American constitutional arrangement, but it may also be a particularly politically adept way of dealing with at least some of Obama’s current political predicaments.

The key element in this constitutional arrangement is that of separate and shared powers of two branches of the government. Article 2 of its Constitution says of the chief executive, “The President shall be commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States”. However, Article 1, Section 8 says Congress’ powers include the exclusive right “To declare war…; To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years; to provide and maintain a navy; to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces,” all in addition to providing Congress with the power to raise the taxes to pay for it all. In effect, this borderline has set up generations of squabbling between presidents and Congress. In the old days, for the most part there was a general sense that a major conflict meant a declaration of war, as opposed to a brief border incident, and thus Congress would do the necessary.

But in every conflict since World War II there has been no declaration of war. Indeed, the notion seems increasingly a 19th century hangover. The problem comes in when the costs – budgetary, political and, above all, in human terms – begin to rise and a president has to rearrange the Pentagon budget or ask Congress for supplemental appropriations, and then cope with the dolorous impact of all those body bags. In the early stages of the Vietnam War, on what we now know to be highly questionable information, president Johnson asked Congress for authority to carry out more direct military measures via Congress’ Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Prior to the Iraq invasion, George W Bush also called on Congress to support his plans, on what are now known to be even less likely circumstances, those so-called Iraqi weapons of mass deception.

But there is a different kind of political planning at work this time around. Barack Obama’s administration is under fairly unremitting pressure from the Republicans who control the House of Representatives. There are challenges over funding for the operational costs of “Obamacare”, threats to refuse to pass appropriations legislation for the next fiscal year for the government that starts 1 October, and stalled progress on immigration reform, just to name a few of the more divisive issues.

Of course the presidential calculus also includes the fact that 2014 is a midterm election in the US, with one third of Senate seats up for election and the entirety of House of Representatives similarly up for election or re-election. By pushing an endorsement of any action against Syria onto the Congress, this would force Republicans especially to pick carefully how they would respond on a tricky national security matter.

The Republican Party is effectively split into a strong defence/internationalist wing and an increasingly isolationist (“Tea Party”) one, even as the party’s leadership generally has argued for a stronger national defence, a stronger military budget and a policy line that it was the Obama administration who was failing to uphold America’s place in the world. Asking Congress to endorse action towards Syria might well help drive something of a wedge between the two wings of the Republicans, just as increasing numbers of Tea Party isolationist Republicans move to challenge strong defence/internationalist incumbent Republicans in the primary elections that will pick the party’s midterm election candidates. In addition to providing a kind of constitutional cover, going to Congress for an endorsement of a punitive attack could well have useful impacts on various difficult Congressional races.

Of course, the Democratic Party is also split over Syria. International activist Democrats would almost certainly support the president, although some Democrats are opposed to the use of military power, except in circumstances of more direct threats to the nation. At the same time, Democratic Party human rights activists are probably in favour of an attack, although they are likely to be disappointed with an effort that doesn’t push the Assad regime out even further. Meanwhile, supporters of Israel within the party are conflicted that the further destabilization of Syria might well produce an increased threat to Israel by strengthening more extremist rebel factions who might well eventually turn their attentions (and their weapons) towards Israel instead. As a result, even within the president’s own party, calling for congressional endorsement has an element of risk in it as well.

To gain a ringing endorsement for this punishment attack on Syria the president would have to hold on to most of the Senate’s notoriously fractious Democratic caucus, as well as a significant number of Republicans, many of who have bitterly criticized his foreign policy approach. Over in the House, meanwhile, he would have to gain the support of a majority party fighting him on almost every other issue and at the same time get a significant number of Democratic members to join across the aisle to work with the Republicans. Collectively, this all may be a rather big ask. A defeat would be a crushing embarrassment to the president. Even worse than the thumbs down he received from Westminster. A negative answer could imperil the rest of Obama’s legislative agenda, even more than it already is in danger. Of course, the president has already indicated that if necessary he could – and might well – go ahead anyway on Syria as the nation’s commander in chief, per constitutional provisions. And he’s right; it’s just that the protective political cover would be gone.

Because the Congress is currently in recess for the end of summer break, the appropriate congressional committees will have to schedule and then hold hearings some time after 9 September (at a date not yet determined) before any final vote is actually held in Congress (at another date similarly not yet determined). As a result, the putative punishment attack launch is almost certainly only going to come long after the president returns from the G-20 leaders summit that will take place 5-6 September in St Petersburg, Russia. (The originally planned summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama had already been scratched over a range of disagreements between the two nations.) An attack while they were meeting in St Petersburg could have calamitous of course.

That Russian connection is critically important. The Russian government has been a long-time ally of the Syrian government. It has a naval base in Tartus, it has a long-time military cooperation relationship and it has made significant sales of military equipment to Syria for decades, making the whole thing a real income generator. The Russians have consistently disagreed with the American charges about poison gas, at one point going so far as to describe America as “a monkey playing with a hand grenade”. Not the usual diplomatic speak.

As for America’s view on where the gas came from, the Economist notes, “America and its allies have more than this circumstantial evidence. Intelligence, apparently including telephone intercepts and remote-sensing data, convinced them of the regime’s guilt. America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, decried the ‘moral obscenity’ of slaughtering civilians, including women and children, with chemical weapons. (Indeed, Mr Kerry had favoured military retaliation against the Syrian regime after an earlier, small-scale use of chemical weapons, says a source familiar with the debate inside government.) After long months of meeting atrocities in Syria with hedged rebukes and condemnations-with-caveats, White House spokesmen began throwing around words like ‘repugnant’ and arguing that to allow chemical strikes to be left unanswered would be a threat to America’s national security.”

Meanwhile, the US has continued to add further specificity to its charges. Secretary of state John Kerry said Sunday that new laboratory tests showed sarin nerve gas had been used in a 21 August attack inside Syria that had killed over 1,400 people, marking the first time American leaders have noted a specific chemical weapon used. On the influential TV news discussion program Meet the Press, Kerry said blood and hair samples from emergency workers in east Damascus tested positive for sarin, saying American officials had learned of these results in the past day, pointing to this evidence as yet another reason Congress must support Obama’s request to authorize the use of military force. As Kerry had said, “So this case is building and this case will build. I don’t believe that my former colleagues in the United States Senate and the House will turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norm with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons.”

Concurrently, the UN survey team that visited Damascus has now returned to the Netherlands and is preparing its analyses. However, the media is reporting the results may not be available for several months and in any case the team was not tasked with determining – and did not have the capability to do so – who had launched the weaponry. As a result, the Obama administration is not looking for any particular joy from the UN team, preferring to roll out increasing amounts of evidence on its own, as with secretary Kerry’s comments, in order to build its support internationally.

Of course even as the Russians and Chinese continue to indicate their strenuous opposition to any form of punishment attack and now that the British have stepped back, the French have said that while they are still in the game, they cannot do anything on their own. Nevertheless, for the Obama administration, there has been some good news internationally.

The Arab League had already condemned poison gas attacks, but the Saudi government said on Sunday it was time for the world to do everything it could to prevent aggression against the Syrian people, and that it would back an American strike on Syria if the Syrian people did (although how that was supposed to be measured is something of a question). Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal had said, “We call upon the international community with all its power to stop this aggression against the Syrian people,” adding with regard to the possibility of a US air strike, “We stand by the will of the Syrian people. They know best their interests, so whatever they accept, we accept, and whatever they refuse, we refuse.” Al-Faisal was at an Arab League meeting in Cairo and reporters say this meeting is expected to blame Assad for the gas attack.

Turkey has also said it is willing to support a strike, even without a UN mandate, if the regime was responsible for the attack, and Germany has also been supportive. If the UK eventually goes along, there would actually be broader European support on Syria than George W Bush had in 2003.

However, military analysts note that the now virtually certain delay in any launch of the punishment attack will give the Syrian military time to move their equipment and weaponry to new or safer locations – especially the anti-aircraft missiles, computers and other high-tech military hardware presumed to be key targets in any US attack. Accordingly, a delay in an attack to at least mid-September means new intelligence will need to be gathered and factored into any targeting and planning on an extremely urgent basis, especially to ensure that the intended targets are identified and selected, rather than schools, hospitals, foreign embassies and so forth. Analysts note that chemical weapons depots are presumed not to be targets for the obvious reasons that such an attack would set toxic agents loose into the air or make the contents of the poison gas weapons storage facilities targets for looting by rebel forces or yet others. And that would almost surely make the consequences of the raids potentially worse than what has already happened.

As for the rebels themselves, the delay in any potential raids has almost certainly distressed the rebel forces. Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a group which has long favoured American intervention in the conflict, said, “This is absolutely a blow to many in the opposition on the ground who’ve suffered the brunt of the chemical attacks. The feeling now is that this is really an orphaned revolution and that the regime will feel emboldened to continue its shelling of cities and towns around Damascus. The Syrian people feel more alone now than ever. Even after the Assad regime used chemical weapons that the entire planet opposes, the U.S. has yet to react.”

And so, if the Obama administration does receive the endorsement of the US Congress, and if it then attracts a number of other international partners, including those from the Arab world and perhaps even Britain in some limited capacity after all, but does not have UN backing or authorization, how might it make its case? Eventually, it will ground its reasoning on longstanding doctrines in international law, ideas that stretch right back to the thoughts of the father of international law, the 16th century Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius.

Grotius was the first to formulate those now familiar formal arguments for international self-defence, as well as “rights in war” in which states did not have unlimited free rein in how they pursue warfare, rather they were obligated to act justly and prudently when conducting and concluding war. The Syrian government’s obligations as a signatory to the Geneva Protocol on poison gas warfare would seem to fit here. Then there is Grotius’ doctrine of “protected persons”, a perspective that has become increasingly prominent in the current discourse on international relations. Finally, the US would almost certainly look for a justification of its actions under the category of humanitarian intervention – with or without the UN – as in Grotius’ argument that states might be able to act on behalf of individuals who were victims “of injuries which … excessively violate the law of nature or of nations in regards to any person.”

Looking forward, the Economist has argued, “Even the most cautious American leaders will saddle up and play sheriff if the alternative is a world in which, when America has clearly announced that it will defend an international norm, a rogue dictator thinks he can call its bluff.” The challenge, of course, is what will happen after the airstrikes, as the savagery on the ground continues, as other nations are ineluctably drawn into the civil war, as the conflict increasingly takes energy from the impact of the religious divisions of the country and beyond. America’s most senior military commander, general Martin Dempsey, recently said American force “can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fuelling this conflict”. And the thing of it is, even if a punishment strike works perfectly and dissuades Bashar al-Assad’s government from any future use of poison gas weapons, the civil war will continue for a long time to come. DM

Read more:

  • Sarin gas used in Syria attack, Kerry says, at the Washington Post
  • Obama’s canny, democratic move, at the BBC
  • Obama’s Syria strategy – At the very least, the president wants lawmakers to co-own a decision, at Politico
  • France says it cannot act alone on Syria as U.S. hesitates, at Reuters
  • Debate begins on question of a strike on Syria, at the AP
  • Syrian state-run daily calls Obama move a retreat, at the AP
  • Obama Seeks Approval by Congress for Strike in Syria, at the New York Times
  • Obama Speaks on Syria, at the New York Times
  • President Pulls Lawmakers Into Box He Made, at the New York Times
  • War, What Is It Good For? (a column by Ross Douthat), in the New York Times
  • Even after 100,000 deaths in Syria, chemical weapons attack evoked visceral response, at the Washington Post
  • Obama says U.S. will take military action against Syria, pending Congress’s approval, at the Washington Post
  • Grotius, Hugo, at the Harvard University law faculty
  • Hugo Grotius at The American Society of International Law and International Judicial Academy, at Judicial Monitor
  • Global cop, like it or not. The American administration sees no alternative to an attack on Syria, at the Economist
  • A Western attack will not want for firepower or targets – but it will need to be finely judged if it is to work, at the Economist
  • The shadow of Ypres: How a whole class of weaponry came to be seen as indecent, at the Economist
  • Draft Resolution for Use of U.S. Military in Syria, at the New York Times
  • Text of President Obama’s Remarks on Syria, at the New York Times

Photo: President Barack Obama meets in the Situation Room with his national security advisors to discuss strategy in Syria, Saturday, August 31, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)



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