No one knew how this was going to work out. With the Brits deciding they’d rather not join us in bombing Syria, and Congress saying don’t do it, or that bombing’s not enough, depending on who you ask, and with the American people more than a little wary of the whole idea, Obama came up with a new plan over the weekend. Everyone was full of advice – do it, don’t do it, think of this consequence or that, don’t be a jerk and make the decision all on your own, be a man and do it all on you own, be bold, be careful. Everyone had a plan, and Obama turned the tables on them. Maybe everyone should put up or shut up. If you think this is so easy, or that the right thing to do is so damned obvious, vote for what should be done. Talk is cheap. You say that Congress should make such decisions? Fine – decide. He told them he had decided to attack Syria, in a limited way, but he’d hold off until Congress voted on that, one way or the other.
Obama will go ahead with an attack even if Congress rejects it, or he might not, but he could. That’s beside the point. It’s time to get Congress on record. Simply whining and complaining won’t do now. Take a position, damn it. Stand FOR something for a change. Don’t bitch. Choose. That’s how our representative democracy is supposed to work. The president was never supposed to be a king. As discussed previously – at some length – this restores a little bit of democracy to our democracy. Maybe it weakens the presidency, showing Obama to be a coward – many on the right are saying that – or maybe the framers of our Constitution designed its division of authority between any one president and Congress for good reason. One man shouldn’t decide everything. The people should have a say when we commit an act of war, or commit to war. Our representatives in the House and Senate should have a say in such matters. The Constitution actually says so. Obama taught constitutional law. He knows this. To argue against this new plan to now ask for a vote from Congress, because that means the president is a wimp, is to argue against the whole structure of our government. Those in Congress who have a problem with what Obama has asked them to do will soon find themselves arguing that they are quite irrelevant, and always should be. Oops.
This was a pretty clever trap, but then it’s always easy to trap authoritarians. Once they say that the will of the people is all that really matters, all the talk of the will of God, or of the necessity for a manly president who does things his way, only, becomes absurd. The people are now fine with gay marriage, and immigration reform, and universal background checks for people buying guns, and with the current rules on abortion, and certainly fine with taxing the rich a bit more and what’s left of the middle class a bit less – and the people can’t be wrong, unless you play fast and loose with the whole concept of authority. Now the question is authorizing an attack on Syria. Our citizens and military personnel are not under attack and this is not a split-second emergency. The President is not considering a request from the UN Security Council, NATO, the Arab League or anyone else. Sending our missiles against Syria is an act of war. If it is to be done, Congress, not the president, should approve. Those are the rules. If you want to change them now then call a Constitutional Convention or something – argue we need a king if you’d like.
The lobbying blitz stretched from Capitol Hill, where the administration held its first classified briefing on Syria open to all lawmakers, to Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry reached Arab diplomats by phone in an attempt to rally international support for a firm response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
Members of Congress from across the political spectrum reacted with deep skepticism Sunday to President Obama’s bid for approval of strikes against Syria, with lawmakers raising doubts about whether a vote would succeed.
And the Israelis are worried:
Many here viewed Obama’s last-minute equivocation as the latest evidence of a growing U.S. reluctance to engage aggressively in the Middle East, a worrisome prospect for a nation that relies heavily on its close American ties to intimidate enemies.
Russia dramatically escalated its denunciations of American threats to attack Syrian military targets on Saturday, with President Vladimir Putin saying it would have been “utter nonsense” for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons as the Obama administration alleges.
President Barack Obama got a chilly response from Republican lawmakers on his request for support for military action in Syria after alleged chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad… The list of criticisms from Republicans was wide-ranging: The president should act on his own; he doesn’t have a plan; the U.S. military is degraded; the U.S. is war-weary; Mr. Obama has been too tentative; he has leaked too much of his plans already.
Some Republicans may oppose the president simply because they are opposed to the president. But that does not constitute a foreign or national security policy. The Republican Party now is divided among those in the neoconservative wing who led the call for invading Iraq and who continue to argue in favor of more robust action in Syria; those in the libertarian wing who want the United States generally to stay out any conflicts; and those in the middle who see a need for U.S. leadership but are tempered by public weariness with war.
And those Syrian rebels aren’t happy at all:
Opposition activists said they were “deeply disappointed” with the decision. Rebel fighters also have predicted that Assad loyalists would seek to use the delay to escalate attacks on rebel strongholds.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal indirectly acknowledged Sunday that the Arab world remained reliant on the U.S. as the region’s policeman of last resort against transgressions by fellow Arab states, as well as the Arab world’s top tier of protection against Iran. “There is no capacity in the Arab world to respond to this kind of crisis,” Prince Saud said, speaking of Syria.
Yeah, but they’re not everyone over there:
However, some influential members of the league, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria, have expressed opposition to foreign military intervention.
Drum has some advice here:
Why, it’s almost as if the only thing anyone really cares about is their own narrow parochial interest. Enforcing a century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons may sound high-minded in the abstract, but down on the ground there’s virtually no one who (a) actually cares about that and (b) would view a U.S. strike through that lens. You’re for it because you’re a Democrat or a Sunni or an Israeli or a member of the rebel army. You’re against it if you’re a Republican or a Shiite or an Egyptian or Vladimir Putin. Hardly anyone truly cares about American credibility or international norms or foreign policy doctrines or any of the other usual talking points. They’ve just chosen sides – that’s all.
Drum offers a word to the wise:
Regardless of your own personal view on a Syrian strike, you should keep this in mind. Your motivations – either for or against a strike – might be entirely virtuous, but there’s very little virtue among the actors whose opinions actually matter. The lesson you think will be sent by either restraint or action is probably not the lesson the rest of the world will take from it.
That’s depressing, but we’ll send some sort of message anyway, now that Obama has a new ally:
The White House’s aggressive push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Obama’s most hawkish critics, Senator John McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military.
In an hour-long meeting at the White House, said Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, Mr. Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were agreed upon. Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the CIA, was beginning to sneak into Syria.
That might be useful, but with perhaps sixty percent of those Syrian rebels being stone-cold al-Qaeda jihadists, McCain is just posturing – as we should support all rebels against tyranny. The fact that they’re the very same bad guys trying to kill us everywhere else, and have no clue how to run a government if they succeed, didn’t cross McCain’s mind – or it did, but he has an image to uphold. He was the hot-shot irresponsible fighter pilot, often reprimanded, who got shot down over Vietnam early on and then spent the entire war in solitary in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He believes that makes him a hero, who knows things. The one may be true without the other, and one gets the sense Obama was shining him on anyway. A few fifty-man cells of CIA fighters won’t change the facts here, and McCain admitted that there was “no concrete agreement” with Obama on which rebels get our support, and when and how. McCain was, however, able to say that Obama agrees with him – in principle. It was enough to get McCain onboard. He’s easy, and now he’s all in:
In remarks to reporters outside the West Wing, he called the meeting “encouraging,” urged lawmakers to support Mr. Obama in his plan for military action in Syria and said a no vote in Congress would be “catastrophic” for the United States and its credibility in the world. Mr. McCain said he believed after his conversation with the president that any strikes would be “very serious” and not “cosmetic.”
No one else is going to be that easy:
A Labor Day conference call with five of Mr. Obama’s highest-ranking security advisers drew 127 House Democrats, nearly two-thirds their total number, after 83 lawmakers of both parties attended a classified briefing on Sunday. Pertinent committees are returning to Washington early from a Congressional recess for hearings this week, starting Tuesday with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hear from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The debate is shifting away from ‘Did he use chemical weapons?’ to ‘What should be done about it?'” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in an interview after the Monday conference call.
No one else is as heroically simpleminded as John McCain. Things are never as simple as they should be. This would have been a whole lot easier if Obama had just made the decision all on his own, but he didn’t. It’s time to think things through for a change – no more of that comfortable and fun sneering and sniping from the sidelines now, to impress primary voters next time around. It’s time to get to work. What is the best thing to do? They didn’t expect that question, but many in Congress are getting over their resentment and actually working on an answer.
No one knew how this was going to work out, and it just might work out, which leads the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson to applaud Obama for asking for Congress’ input before attacking Syria:
This may be the first sensible step that Obama has taken in the Syrian crisis, and may prove to be one of the better ones of his Presidency – even if he loses the vote, as could happen. Politically, he may have just saved his second term from being consumed by Benghazi-like recriminations and spared himself Congressional mendacity about what they all might have done.
That was the whole point, and the Atlantic’s James Fallows is also happy with this:
This is the kind of deliberation, and deliberateness – plus finding ways to get out of a (self-created) corner – that has characterized the best of his decisions. It is a very welcome change, and surprise, from what leaks had implied over the past two weeks.
At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison sees the possibility of some common sense here:
Presumably, Obama is gambling that he can cow Congress into granting authorization by having publicly committed the U.S. to military action. When presidents have gone to Congress to seek this kind of authorization, they have typically received it and usually by a large margin. I am cautiously hopeful that there are enough members in the House at least that know how deeply unpopular war with Syria is that this will not be the case this time, but I fear that few Democrats will be willing to vote against the White House and too many Republicans will be only too happy to vote yes. If members of Congress judge the proposed attack in terms of U.S. interests or international law, they should definitely reject it. If they judge it in terms of bogus “credibility” arguments or an obsession with wounding Iran, I am less sure that most of them will vote no.
At Business Insider, Josh Barro games it out a different way:
Democrats: In the current political environment, they have little reason to think voting against an attack will make them look “soft on terror,” which is what they were most afraid of during the Iraq authorization vote 10 years ago. But they have good reason to fear the Hillary example: voting yes could cost them a primary election if things go wrong.
Republicans: War hawks are a far weaker force in GOP politics than they were 10 years ago. You don’t have to be Ron Paul to defend a skeptical position on intervention anymore. And it’s not that hard to make a case to a Republican primary electorate for why you opposed one of Barack Obama’s initiatives.
Obama could lose this vote, because politicians do sense the mood of the country, and George W. Bush poisoned the well.
There’s more to it than that, as the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe thinks Obama learned another lesson:
Obama has clearly learned something from Cameron’s blunder: he’s not rushing this thing. Cameron was dealing with an incomplete Parliament, as some MPs just didn’t bother to come back for the vote. He didn’t spend the time laying out his case, lobbying and whipping the vote in to shape. Obama, by contrast, is not summoning Congress back early. He’s scheduled a second briefing with lawmakers, and there have been reports that he is already personally lobbying the people in his party, like Carl Levin, who have been skeptical of intervention in Syria.
That fine, but the Washington Post’s Max Fisher worries about the delay:
The U.S. Congress is not known for its speed with urgent issues – particularly ones that come during their vacation. It is also not an institution known for compromise or cooperation on issues that are, like this one, daunting, difficult and that have few political upsides. Whether or not you think that off-shore strikes are a good idea, this adds more delays and uncertainty after a week of both. It increases the likelihood, probably already significant, that the Assad regime will see the international community as unable or unwilling to hold him accountable. If strikes are likely to happen anyway, the uncertainty is not good for Syria. And if they don’t happen, Syria would have likely been better off if the U.S. had never signaled otherwise in the first place.
In Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf sees the real problem with any delay:
If the administration persuades Congress to support military action, it will be seen as a victory for the president, to be sure. But it may also have given the Assad regime another two or three weeks to redeploy assets and hunker down – so that the kind of limited attack currently envisioned has even more limited consequences.
Yes, but we should talk about it, and Bruce Riedel suggests we see the larger picture:
A war with Iran would be vastly more dangerous and costly than one with Syria, even if both are intended to be limited. Wars always have unintended consequences. If time permits, the people’s representatives should be part of the decision to take on the risks of action. President George H. W. Bush did that before the liberation of Kuwait. As a senior intelligence officer, I spent days explaining the CIA’s estimates of the risks to the Congress. The process sharpened our analysis.
There are no good options in Syria. Sliding into the conflict by baby steps and partial measures is the worst approach. Even worse would be to do so without a national debate and Congressional action.
So we’ll have a national debate and Congressional action, even if no one expected any such thing, or even wanted it, and even if it will be messy and often nasty. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be like that. Those who see a problem here need to see how radically traditional Obama’s surprise move really was. So let’s get to work.