Do Putin or Assad Actually Fear U.S. Strikes?

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.

Obama’s Red Line Gives Him No Choice

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.

Will Obama Strike Syria Without Congressional Approval?

President Obama was repeatedly asked at his press conference in Russia today about whether he would still attack Syria if Congress votes down the force authorization. Obama has said a number of times that he has the constitutional authority to do so, but hasn’t answered whether or not he will take that action. On Twitter, Talk Points Memo’s Sahil Kapur said that he can’t answer that question, “because it undercuts his effort to build support.” But that only happens if Obama is determined to go ahead with the strikes without Congressional approval.

Think about it for a second. If Obama comes out and declares that he will not strike Syria if Congress doesn’t approve the resolution, what does that change? It puts more pressure on lawmakers to vote for authorization as they can no longer convince themselves that Obama will act anyways. For a Congressman who wants to vote yes, but won’t do so both for political reasons and because he believes Obama will act unilaterally, this could change his vote. On the other hand, revealing that he won’t act without Congressional approval will not make any Congressmen more likely to vote against the resolution.

The only reason I can see for the President to keep his intentions hidden is if he is willing to go ahead without authorization or has not made up his mind yet. The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan explained this well:

Here’s the issue: If Obama says whether or not he would proceed with an attack after a failed vote, he could change the way the vote is likely to play out in advance. He needs to make members feel that “yes” or “no” votes are consequential. If he says he is going to act anyway, it could give cover to lawmakers on the fence to vote “no,” since action — which polls show is unpopular — would come even without their approval. If he says he will not act without Congress, Obama is leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers and limiting his flexibility.

But what’s wrong with the President “leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers” if he intends to do so anyways? As Cillizza and Sullivan note, it limits his flexibility, but that is only if he is determined to overrule Congress anyways. If the President is not going to do so, then he can put more pressure on Congress to approve the force authorization by revealing that he will not act unilaterally. It makes their votes more consequential.

The scariest part of this is that if the President has done this calculation, then he may intend to disregard Congress. The only reason for him to keep his intentions secret is if he’s willing to act unilaterally or if he hasn’t made up his mind. Given that overruling Congress would be both unconstitutional and possibly grounds for impeachment, let’s hope it’s the latter.