Presidential Politics and Syria

Monday, April 1, 2013

The president is clever, but in a disturbing way:

1. In the heat of an election race a year ago, the president invented a red line where none existed before. No existing treaty requires military action. From 1983 to 1988, Iraq and Iran in their war used hundreds of chemical weapons—and President Reagan did nothing.

2. This is Obama’s personal red line. He created it without consulting congress. In 2011, Obama bombed Libya for six months and never asked Congress for permission. Now he demands Congressional authorization.

3. To do what? He has now proposed a strike (≈150 cruise missiles) that will kill many soldiers and civilians, but not kill Assad or drive him from power. That is not a strategy; it is an act of pique. You do not initiate war without analyzing moves and countermoves, until you are satisfied that the gains to national security outweigh the risks.

4. It is not convincing that striking some but not all chemical sites protects our allies, who felt no need to act. The Israelis would certainly have acted on their own, had they feared Syrian chemicals. Instead, they are urging the U.S. to act decisively, meaning that we become involved and stay involved.

5. In essence, Mr. Obama is presenting his personal mistake as a matter of national honor. Either we deliver a pinprick strike now, or Iran will develop nuclear weapons with impunity because our word is no good.

As a matter of historical record, whether, why and whom we bomb in the future is not predictable. Countries decide upon actions depending on their interpretation of the facts at the time; they rarely use the past as precedent for what the response to their actions will be.

Arguing that our national honor hangs in the balance is poor strategy but good politics. It has already been accepted as the essential bedrock truth by Senator McCain and other political opponents. The more the precedent argument is preached, the more agonizing the vote. The president has backed our nation into a corner.

6. Several outcomes could follow:

a. The president can appear to concede to his opponents. Both legislative bodies could vote to take military action only as a strategy aimed at removing Assad. This broader goal would require closing Syrian airfields, necessitating repeated missile strikes. This strategy is advocated by Republican Senators McCain, Graham and others.

If the president agrees, he is contradicting his own insistence that any strike would be limited to “a shot across the bow.”

“The options that we are considering are not about regime change,” Obama spokesman James Carney said. “That is not what we are contemplating here.”

b. Conversely, Democratic Senators Leahy and Levin are urging that congress place further limits upon a symbolic strike before taking a vote. If their view prevails, that leaves three outcomes – all with political benefit for the president.

First, if both bodies voted no, he could still strike, posturing as the mature president who accepts responsibility even when other politicians do not. Or he could not strike, shifting the blame to the Congress.

Second, if both bodies voted yes to a limited, symbolic strike, he will emerge with enhanced stature.

Third, if the Senate approved and the House did not, he will strike symbolically while pointing to the House as emblematic of Republican intransigence in fiscal as well as foreign policy matters.

7. In sum, the odds are the president is not badly bruised in domestic politics, and could emerge stronger. In terms of advancing our global interests, however, this episode of a spontaneous red line is a step backwards because it has demonstrated poor planning and wavering leadership.