I’m skeptical. First off, both leaders undoubtedly know that the force authorization was going to die in Congress. They can read the whip counts and it’s pretty clear by now that this isn’t going to pass. Here’s Ezra Klein commenting on the potential compromise of Assad handing over his chemical weapons:
That deal will fall apart if Syria and Russia conclude that the White House’s threats are empty. Obama needs the country’s backing to strike Syria so he can strike a diplomatic bargain to get rid of Assad’s chemical arsenal, thus ending America’s interest in striking Syria.
But Obama can’t get that support by going on prime time and asking Americans to help him bluff Russia.
What exactly do Syria and Russia fear? The only thing I can think of is that they believe the President will authorize the strikes without Congressional approval. I don’t see that happening. Maybe that’s a large enough risk that Putin and Assad are open to negotiations to avoid it. But they certainly shouldn’t fear that Congress will approve of the strikes.
Here’s Klein again this morning on why the White House postponed the vote:
The other is that the White House would very likely lose — if they were going to win, they’d hold the vote and use the authorization as leverage with Russia and Syria.
It’s not like Putin and Assad don’t understand this either! If Obama had the votes, there would be no reason for the White House to delay. It would give the Administration leverage over Assad and allow them to speed up the negotiating process since the President would have the authority to strike at any time.
So, what motivated Syria and Russia to look for a compromise? I’m not sure, but I can’t see how the President’s bluff had anything to do with it.
In a primetime address last night, President Obama laid out his reasons why the U.S. should strike Syria in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Despite the “power” of the bully pulpit, I doubt that the speech will convince many people to support the President’s plan.
Why? Because Obama’s arguments are clearly wrong. It’s that simple. That’s the reason why the American people are so against it. That’s the reason why Congress is so against it. No speech by Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry or anyone else in the Administration is going to change that.
Let’s go through the President’s address and show why. Here’s his first argument for striking Syria:
If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.
As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.
First off, launching a couple of cruise missiles at Damascus isn’t going to deter Assad very much, especially when he sees the U.S. Congress and American people so strongly against the use of military force. The President was emphatic that such a strike would not be a “pinprick” (or “unbelievably small” as Kerry said), but the fact is that it wouldn’t be much more than a pinprick either. Will Assad really believe that the U.S. will destroy him if he uses chemical weapons again? Or that we’ll deploy ground troops? Not at all.
Second, are other tyrants going to be deterred by such a minor response? Unlikely. Such a small response doesn’t demonstrate U.S. strength. The other option of not responding at all isn’t that much less of a deterrent, but it does carry with it the possibility of escalation in Syria. The small deterrence towards other tyrants isn’t worth that risk.
Third, any leader knows that if he gasses U.S. troops, we’ll wipe him off the face of the planet. What we do in Syria has absolutely no impact on that.
Fourth, how does our lack of a response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons make it easier for terrorists to obtain such weapons? There’s no connection here.
Obama then pivoted to how our response affects our allies in the region:
If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.
Fighting could spill beyond Syria’s border anyways. A U.S. strike on Syria also risks Assad retaliating against those countries as well. In addition, Obama negates this argument later when he says, “our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.” If Israel can defend itself against retaliation, it can defend itself from fighting spilling over Syria’s borders as well.
As for Iran, there is no connection between the United State’s response to Assad’s use of chemical response and the Iranian decision to acquire a nuclear bomb. Iran knows that if it attempts to build a nuke, the American people and U.S. Congress will not sit back and allow it to happen. Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people was a crime against humanity, but an Iranian attempt to build a nuclear bomb would threaten the national security of the United States and Israel. Iran knows that we are much more committed to stopping them from acquiring a nuclear weapon than we are about deterring Assad. Our response to the Syrian president has no implications on Iran. The only connection between the two is that Obama drew red lines around both.
This gets me to my larger point: Obama’s red line on chemical weapons has forced his hand. I bet the President understands that every reason he outlined above is easily refuted. I bet he understands that Assad’s use of chemical weapons doesn’t actually threaten America’s national security. I bet he doesn’t even want to strike Syria. But he has no choice. He drew a red line around chemical weapons usage and Assad has unequivocally crossed that line. What else can he do at this point? Backtrack and say he didn’t mean it? Not an option. His only move is to go ahead and pursue a strike so “unbelievably small” that it does not risk destabilizing the region or a disproportionate retaliation from Assad while still “enforcing” his red line.
If the President hadn’t set such a red line, he could condemn the attack, demand Assad hand over his chemical weapons and respond in plenty of other ways. But he wouldn’t be cornered into a position where he had to respond with U.S. military force. He’s trapped himself in a corner and there’s no way out. That’s the reason every speech him or an Administration official gives supporting a strike comes off as weak. The use of force is not in the U.S.’s national interest.
Afterwards, CNN’s Jake Tapper summed up the speech aptly:
A speech to a public that doesn’t want to go to war by a president who doesn’t want to go to war.
Unfortunately, Obama doesn’t have a choice.
Representative Tom Cotton (R-AR) delivered the keynote address today at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he discussed the new threats that the U.S. faces from Al Qaeda and radical Islam. The first-term Congressman is a rising star in the Republican ranks and is challenging Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) for his seat in 2014. His resume is even more impressive: graduate of Harvard University undergrad and law school, clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals and time at McKinsey & Co. But what Cotton values most, and talks about frequently, is his time in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s how Cotton began today’s speech as well.
“For much of 2006, I patrolled the streets of Baghdad as a platoon leader with the 101st airborne,” he said. “My soldiers and I knew in a very concrete and personal way that we needed more troops and we needed a new strategy, even if few of us could articulate what it might be.”
Cotton praised AEI for the organization’s contributions to the Iraq Surge and then shifted from talking about his military background to the main theme of his speech: the growing threat of Al Qaeda.
“To put it simply, Al Qaeda today remains a great threat that too many policymakers misunderstand and want to wish away,” he said. “We have to recognize and understand this threat before we can defeat it. And we need to have strength and confidence to fight Al Qaeda using all the tools and resources that have proven to work over the years,”
Before 9/11, few people were aware of the threat Al Qaeda posed to the United States, he said. Afterwards, that quickly changed as the U.S. joined the war against radical Islam. Cotton emphasized that the U.S. joined the war, which radical Islam had started decades earlier. It had taken the United State an event as tragic as 9/11 to get it to stand up and fight, despite repeated terrorist attacks during the 1990s. Cotton worried that a similar complacency and disregard for Al Qaeda was setting in on both lawmakers and the American people in recent years.
“Regrettably, too many Americans believe that the threat from Al Qaeda ended in 2011 with the killing of Osama Bin Laden,” he said. “And too many policymakers in Washington want to believe that these terrorist groups aren’t affiliated with each other or what might be called Core Al Qaeda.”
Cotton stressed that Al Qaeda has grown in strength over the past four years due to the Obama Administration’s neglect for counterterrorism policies. For years, the U.S. military had kept Al Qaeda in a defensive position, pushing them into the hills of Afghanistan where it was near impossible to coordinate a terrorist attack. The United States was the “strong horse” and Al Qaeda the weak, he said.
In recent years though, Al Qaeda has resurged in unstable regions throughout the Middle East. It is no longer a centralized organization, but a network of groups that are increasingly looking at the United States as the “weak horse,” not the strong. Cotton declared his support for many of the counterterrorism strategies that the United States has used over the past decade including drone strikes, indefinite detention and interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Agency’s surveillance methods. He denounced sequestration’s defense cuts, arguing that “the consequences will be historic – and not in a good way.”
All of these things have altered the balance in the War on Terror, Cotton said. In particular, he criticized President Obama for failing to support the moderate groups in Syria years ago, leading to the messy situation that exists there today.* He emphasized that the Obama Administration has not shown the will and confidence to continue to fight Al Qaeda and that this indifference has begun switching the balance of power so that the United States looks more and more like the “weak horse.”
“In the end, the key trait of the strong horse is the will to win,” he concluded. “Our enemies still have the will to win. America had the will to win for a long time and I believe most Americans still do have the will to win. I know that our troops and intelligence professionals do. But I do worry that many of our elected leaders do not and that is dangerous, because in the end, the strong horse does win.”
*Cotton published an op-ed with Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KA) supporting Obama’s plan for Syria a week ago.