Obama & Congress over Syria: maybe politics does start at the water’s edge

By J Brooks Spector 5 September 2013

Even if Congress comes on board and supports the president, the Syrian civil war itself has many more acts left to run. J. BROOKS SPECTOR summarizes the congressional action so far.

In America, popular culture frequently borrows from that cartoon convention that an opera only reaches its finale when the “fat lady” – one of those large, buxom singers wearing a toga-like sheet and a Valkyrie helmet with horns stuck on it – sings her last aria to thunderous applause as the curtain comes down. American-style football has appropriated this image, the idea being that no matter how close to the end of regulation time the game is at, “it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings”, meaning anything can still happen on the field. In turn, American politics has appropriated lots of football imagery, like goal-line stands, scoring touchdowns, tackling one’s opponents and, of course, the singing fat lady.

As far as Barack Obama’s call for the US Congress to endorse his planned punishment strike on the Syrian government because of its use of chemical weapons against its citizens, the fat lady truly has not yet sung her final notes. But, she is definitely warming up her vocal chords, getting ready for that final big crescendo.

A couple of weeks ago, addressing the Syrian chemical weapons use was supposed to have been much easier for Barack Obama to deal with, and a whole lot harder for Mr Bashar al-Assad. Once the intelligence data had been evaluated and assimilated by the policy makers, the appropriate targets would have been selected and the allies would have lined up on the basis of their own intelligence as well as that of the US. The Syrians would have had to take it on the chin. The warning would have been delivered about crossing that now-notorious red line Obama had drawn in the sand. Of course, that was before the British Parliament refused to back Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for the “Mother of Parliaments” to saddle up for the same ride. That, in turn, made it that much harder to recruit other nations to the cause, or to build broader pressure for an eventual endorsement at the UN as well.

But with that sudden change in the script, the Obama administration itself shuffled the deck. Surprising almost everyone, on Saturday, rather than report on the imminent launch of a salvo of cruise missiles towards military sites in Syria, Barack Obama made the announcement that before going ahead with any punitive attack on Syria, he would seek the endorsement of Congress for his decision. In many quarters, initial reactions ranged from puzzled incredulity to some real tongue clucking over Obama’s suddenly exposed international weaknesses and his political ineptitude.

But were they really such failures? This speaks to both tactics and strategy. In one sense the whole point of his exercise was to demonstrate to both domestic and international audiences (tough houses both of them) that the US Government was rather more unified than normal in carrying out a raid on Syrian military capabilities. The process would also give administration officials some excellent opportunities to make its case to audiences in the US, and the world.

Making that case is crucial, even for a limited action as the one contemplated by the Obama administration, given the evidence from US public polling of a significant lack of enthusiasm for participation in the Syrian civil war, even if it is just a forceful message about the consequences of using chemical warfare. The newest poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, says 48% of US voters, including 40% of Republicans, oppose action, and only 29% of the public as a whole favours any action. Of that latter figure, only 35% of those who call themselves Republicans do so.

A second goal, then, seems to have been to demonstrate to the Syrian authorities, and other nations such as North Korea and Iran, that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. The message being that this is true regardless of whether or not a condemnation could finally be extracted from the UN Security Council. Moreover, that American plan is rooted in broader considerations in international law, not whether they managed to successfully garner five votes from UN Security Council’s permanent members.

A third rationale, this time a domestic political goal, seems to have been to force the Republican Party into finally coming to a decision about what it really supports in terms of its relationship with the president. By forcing it to participate in a public vote on Syria, its members would have to show whether or not their party is in favour of a return to isolationism or not, especially when so many of its members continue to criticize the president over his supposed weakness on defence and security. Assuming the Obama administration’s gamble pays off with Congress, he would, in fact, be presenting a more unified national government, including a goodly number of his opposition among his backers, than if had he simply ordered the attack on his own say-so.

The Congress has become notoriously fractured over its views about any new force commitment in Syria. As Slate’s John Dickinson explains, “During the Cold War and for a period after the attacks of 9/11, a national security consensus existed between the two parties. When it came to foreign adventures, the president’s party would support him, and a significant portion of the opposition (sometimes a majority) would go along, too. This consensus has been fraying. On issues from President Obama’s use of drones, to the breadth of U.S. surveillance, to how to respond to the coup in Egypt, there is confusion, instability and partisanship in Washington.”  As a result, isolationist Republicans find themselves lined up together with Democratic doves (a pairing that would rarely happen normally), while Republican interventionist “hawks” are coming together with Democrats eager to support their party’s president and who also believe in using military force for humanitarian ends.

Until the Congress actually votes, of course, it is impossible to know for sure how it will all fall out, but the following is a rough typology of what the president and the two parties’ leadership is contending with among the 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives.

Those against any actions at all seem to be falling into nine distinct categories (although some members have managed to fall into several camps simultaneously). These are those who argue it will help Islamists among the rebel forces, as with Republican senator Rand Paul; that Syria will ultimately become another Iraq as with Democratic rep Barbara Lee; that chaos will ensue and risk danger to American ally Israel, as with Democratic rep Rick Nolan; that the American people simply don’t support it, as with Republican congressman Justin Amash; that it is not in America’s broader national interest, as with Democratic senator Joe Manchin; Republican congressman Tom Cole’s view is that such a strike will have no real impact anyway; that salvaging American credibility is no reason for such an attack is the view of Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio (a likely candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016); Democratic congressman Adam Smith’s view is that America simply can’t do everything everywhere; and Republican congressman Michael Burgess’ view is that the evidence still is weak.

Those who presumably have not yet made up their minds argue, as Republican senator Lamar Alexander does, that there remains a real question of what the country will do after the proposed bombing is over. Meanwhile, yet another faction argues the proposed resolution of support needs to be drawn much more narrowly to preclude the insertion of ground troops further along the timeline as part of some kind of mission creep, as per Democratic congressman Adam Schiff’s views.

Even among those in favour of the proposed action, they seem to have come to this view from differing perspectives, according to their public statements so far. Democratic senator Ben Nelson has said,We should strike in Syria today. The use of chemical weapons was inhumane, and those responsible should be forced to suffer the consequences.” While his party colleague senator Al Franken argues, “Whatever action the United States takes, it has to be limited action. This can’t be an open-ended commitment, and it definitely should not lead to American boots on the ground.” Democratic congressman Eliot Engel argues the strike needs to be done to prevent any emboldening of Iran. While Republican senator John McCain, an early supporter of the president on this matter, said that rejecting the resolution “would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us wants that.”

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez, meanwhile, says the resolution would send a message to Iran and North Korea, as well as terrorist groups. Republican speaker of the house John Boehner insists it should be passed to stop Assad and “warn others around the world that this type of behaviour is not going to be tolerated”. Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz insists it is to avenge the gassed children. And house minority leader Nancy Pelosi says it would enforce humanity’s red line as “humanity drew it decades ago, 170-some countries supporting the convention on not using chemicals – chemical warfare”. And some, like senate majority leader Harry Reid, John McCain and South Carolina Republican senator Lindsay Graham seem to be urging even stronger measures.

In all, it remains up in the air whether the full chambers will vote in favour of the resolution, precisely because there is so little party unanimity internally among Democrats or Republicans. But the Obama administration has been lobbying hard to gain support by presenting heavy duty classified briefings to the waverers and supporters alike, and not a little bit of arm-twisting of the fence sitters on this issue.

In fact, in spite of the initial media frenzy, the Obama administration’s approach is rooted in US law and custom. With the US Constitution’s adroit division of power over the military, the president is commander in chief, but the Congress holds a monopoly on the power to declare war and fund the military. That calls for a kind of cooperation even in the midst of partisan rancour. But, as it happens, no war has been declared since World War II, following the Japanese surprise attack on the American fleet at anchor in Honolulu’s Pearl Harbor in 1941. All subsequent military engagements have taken place through the decision by a president. The national cataclysm of the Vietnam War, however, forced a movement of the boundary between president and Congress with the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973, supported by an increasingly disgruntled Congress in response to that nearly decade-long, ultimately futile war.

The War Powers Act set out the limits of any commitment of military force, without a president having to come back to Congress for continuing support and approval or authorization beyond measures to pay for such force commitment. In the wake of the national paroxysm over 9/11, George W Bush had sought – and won – a resolution of support for his ill-advised Iraq invasion. The anomalous results of that invasion, though, has thoroughly chastised many both inside and outside Congress.

And so, over the weekend, first with Obama’s announcement on Saturday, then secretary of state John Kerry’s aggressive testimony on Sunday on the television news discussion shows, the administration began building a more public case for action. Even as the UN’s survey team returned to the Netherlands with their samples (their task was to prove/disprove the use of poison gas but not, importantly, who had used it or the commands that might have been given for its use) and it was announced that the results might take weeks to be completed, the president’s proposal went to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then the House of Representatives International Relations Committee for two days of hearings.

The attending members of the Senate and the House of Representatives heard extensive testimony from secretary of state Kerry, defence secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the joint chiefs of state, general Martin Dempsey. The three men took some rigorous questioning during these hearings. There was little in the way of softball questions being tossed their way, even by supposed friends of the administration.

In the end, the Senate committee took an almost immediate vote, reporting out a 10-7 vote in favour of a slightly revised resolution. That cleared the way for the resolution to go to the full Senate for a vote after the Senate returns from its Labour Day recess. Crucial for its success in the Senate would be if 60 of the 100 members are prepared to vote to end debate on the measure, otherwise it could become a long, torturous parliamentary wrangle over the resolution, even after it has been voted out of committee. This 60 member figure is potentially a tough one for Democrats to achieve, since it is significantly beyond their full party strength in the chamber.

Meanwhile, the House committee, with its Republican majority, may host a more contentious debate before it finally reports out a bill to the full House. Even with the House Republican leadership publicly behind the resolution, given the multiplicity of reasons for opposition to it, it is not a given the measure will pass, let alone pass easily. Then, there would still be the need to reconcile the two different measures to achieve a resolution whose language is identical between the two houses.

The silver lining in that potentially dark cloud front may well be that this parliamentary debating period also allows Barack Obama to attend the G20 leaders summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September without having to defend a cruise missile attack on Syria to his erstwhile host, Vladimir Putin. Russia’s president remains strenuously opposed to such an attack unless, he says, decisive evidence showing his Syrian government friends had ordered the attack is presented at the UN. If the missile strike had been launched by now, it would have fatally compromised the global discussion over contentious economic issues at the G20.

Even if this delay ends up complicating the task of the military in setting targeting for those smart bombs and cruise missiles (the Syrians now have more time to move or camouflage the most exposed, the most delicate, or most complex of their command-and-control facilities), it also gives the Obama administration time to lay out in further detail their charges. This gives time to build a stronger case for their punishment of Syria under international law, regardless of UN support or the lack of it, and, of course, to lobby Congress even more intensively to pass the authorizing resolution and line up behind the president.

They even gain time for the possibility there will be independent, ironclad confirmation of who actually ordered the use of poison gas weapons against civilian targets. All of this helps Obama build his case that the red line he drew last year is actually the global community’s red line against chemical warfare. But none of this, of course, will end the civil war in Syria, bring the 2-million refugees back from Turkey and Jordan where they are languishing, or preclude the possibility Syria’s civil war might lead to a broader war in the region with Shiites lined up against Sunnis, or draw the Israelis into the struggle if Syrian rockets – chemically armed or not – are fired at northern Israel. And the punishment attack would not answer the debate in the US about whether or not to aid the rebels in their struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. DM

For more, read:

  • Obama says world ‘has to act’ against Syria, at Financial Times
  • Obama: Congress, world credibility, at AP
  • Obama’s call for Congress vote on Syria puts GOP’s 2016 presidential hopefuls to the test (column by Dan Balz), in the Washington Post
  • How the Syria Debate Is Splitting Both Parties, at the Atlantic
  • Rand Paul, Marco Rubio Embody GOP Split on Syria, at US News
  • AP Interview: Putin warns West on Syria action
  • Shadow of a Doubt (column by Maureen Dowd), in the New York Times
  • Arm and Shame (column by Thomas Friedman), in the New York Times
  • Obama Says World Set a ‘Red Line’ on Syria, in the New York Times
  • Senate resolution to authorize the limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria, at the New York Times
  • House Leaders Express Their Support for Syria Strike, at the New York Times
  • The GOP Wants to Have It Both Ways on Syria (column by Dana Milbank), in the Washington Post
  • Obama rolls the dice on Syria by asking Congress’s approval (column by Ruth Marcus), in the Washington Post
  • On Syria, House GOP won’t follow their leaders, at Politico
  • Obama seeks an accomplice for Syria action (column by George Will), in the Washington Post
  • G.O.P. Senators Fail to Head Off Primary Challenges by Tea Party Rivals, at the New York Times
  • Eisenhower 1954, Obama 2013 at the New Yorker
  • The War Powers Act of 1973 in United States Statutes At Large, Public Law at Prenthall
  • U.N.’s Ban casts doubt on legality of U.S. plans to punish Syria, at Reuters
  • Hawks, Doves, Fence Sitters, at Slate

Photo: (L-R) U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testify at a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 4, 2013. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee struggled on Wednesday to reach agreement on a resolution authorizing military strikes in Syria, but scheduled a vote for later in the day as Obama administration officials pressed for action in Congress. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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