A New Proposal for Syria

Here’s an idea for a way the President and Congress could enforce its red line over Syria using chemical weapons without actually lobbing cruise missiles at Damascus: Congress could pass a bill authorizing President Obama to use force against Assad if he uses chemical weapons again. The goal here is to enforce the red line without actually enforcing it. It’s tough to accomplish, but it’s doable.

Let’s start by stipulating that the Administration’s goal right now is to deter Assad or any other ruler from ever using chemical weapons again. The question, then, is what is the best way to accomplish that while also looking out for our national security?

Obama has decided that only a forceful response will demonstrate to Assad that he meant it when he said chemical weapons use was a red line. But the military strategy the President has proposed was described by Secretary of State John Kerry as “unbelievably small” and would likely inflict limited damage on Assad’s capabilities. The strike would be more symbolic than anything else.

There are no good options on Syria.
There are no good options on Syria.

The problem is that this attack has many risks and limited upside. Shooting a couple of missiles a Syria will do little to convince Assad that the United States is ready to inflict serious harm upon him if he uses chemical weapons again. The widespread disapproval of a war against Assad demonstrates this clearly. In addition, Assad could respond to such an attack with a disproportionate use of force, such as by attacking Israel, or by using chemical weapons yet again, challenging the U.S. to respond with greater military strength. Escalation is a distinct possibility. Is it worth risking destabilizing the region and possibly drawing the United State into another war in the Middle East to send a weak message?

At the same time, doing nothing indicates to Assad that his use of chemical weapons has no consequences. It’s a dangerous message to send. The Syrian leader could begin gassing his people on a wider scale, under the expectation that the U.S. will respond weakly or not at all. Since Congress has been so resistant to responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons this time, it’s not unrealistic to think they will respond weakly to another attack as well. That’s a situation we desperately want to avoid.

As the President and Congressmen have said repeatedly, there are no good options here.

But what if Congress authorizes the President to use force in the case of another chemical weapons attack? There would have to be language in such a bill that outlined the criteria to evaluate whether chemical weapons were used and whether the Syrian government used them. It will be tricky to craft, but a combination of UN investigators (or the lack of Syrian support for them) plus government intelligence should be enough. In addition, the bill should strictly restrict the military options the President can use. It shouldn’t allow boots on the ground, for instance.

This accomplishes two things:

  1. The U.S. does not have to use force right now. The vast majority of Americans and Congress don’t want to use force. The risks are simply too high and benefits too low. By passing an AUMF for a future chemical weapons attack, it makes sure we do not use force right now.
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  2. At the same time, it deters Assad from using chemical weapons again. It’s not the strongest form of deterrence, as it still informs Assad that the consequence of him using chemical weapons will be limited in scope. But it is much more of a deterrent than doing nothing. Obama should also make clear that he will go back to Congress for the authorization to use greater military force if he deems Assad’s transgression consequential enough to require a stronger U.S. response.

Is this a weak response? Absolutely. But every response being contemplated is weak.

Here’s a pessimistic scenario: let’s say such a bill is passed and Assad takes it to mean that he can gas a number of Syrian civilians and expect a limited response. He goes ahead and does so and the President responds by following through on the AUMF. He goes back to Congress to ask for more military options, but is shot down again, confirming Assad’s belief that the U.S. doesn’t want to get too involved in Syria. That’s a bad outcome.

But look at how that scenario plays out if we do nothing now: Assad sees no U.S. response and believes that America will not respond (or will respond weakly) if he gasses his civilians again. Now, Obama asks Congress for the right to use military force. Maybe they give it to him now, but at best it restricts him to limited strikes anyways. If the U.S. doesn’t respond this time, it signals to Assad clearly that the U.S. is a paper tiger over chemical weapons use. That’s a huge risk. Passing the bill I’ve proposed at least eliminates this possibility.

And what about if we strike Syria now? Well that certainly acts as a greater deterrent to Assad, but as I’ve already noted, the risks involved in this are too high to go through with it.

This is a way to credibly deter Assad without the risks of using force. Assad will know with certainty that if he uses chemical weapons again, Obama will respond with military force. That may not be a strong enough deterrent, but it’s better than nothing in a world where there are no good options.

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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.

Does Obama Lack the Leadership Skills in Syria?

One of the most common criticisms of President Obama is that he doesn’t have the leadership skills to persuade legislators to support his agenda. The theory goes that if Obama were friendly to Congressmen or reached across the aisle more, Republicans would suddenly drop their obstructionism and work with him. Commentators on the left and right love to ding the President for this, but it’s almost comically untrue. Presidential leadership is a myth. The bully pulpit is vastly overrated and no matter what Obama does, Republicans are going to oppose it. No number of meetings, dinners or visits to Capitol Hill will change that.

This theory has come up yet again with the Obama Administration’s inability to convince Congressmen, particularly in the House, to support a strike in Syria. The Washington Post‘s Matt Miller articulated his six qualms about Syria today. Here’s number five:

The leadership question. In recent days, several business leaders in Los Angeles who voted for Obama twice have told me, unprompted, that the Syrian episode captures everything they can’t stand about the president. He lacks basic leadership skills, they say. Too much detailed public analysis and hemming and hawing, says one. No real engagement with his counterparts, says another, and so no reservoir of good will with either foreign leaders or with exotic species like Republicans. When Obama himself seems to lack conviction in his proposed course of action, they wonder, how will he persevere when any military step brings the inevitable complications?

Matt Lewis, of the Daily Caller, echoed a similar sentiment this morning:

Some people seem surprised the votes just aren’t there for Syrian intervention. I’m not. Call it the Vietnam syndrome redux, but after a decade of war, Americans are understandably war weary. Thus, the only way way to overcome this difficult obstacle would be to have a). an ironclad case for war, and b). a president who uses personal relationships to twist arms.

In this regard, he’s 0-for-2.

Still, absent a “slam dunk” case for intervention, personally persuading Members of Congress to vote for bombing Syria (in this environment) would require some elbow grease. For years, Obama has been criticized for failing to develop relationships with Members of Congress. Until now, he has mostly (miraculously) skated on this. But one gets the sense that it has finally caught up with him.

So, assuming that President Obama isn’t intentionally tanking the rollout for the strike because he secretly doesn’t want to go to war, how much is a lack of presidential leadership to blame for the lack of support? There’s no doubt that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have done a poor job selling the war to the American people (yes, firing missiles at a country is an act of war). But, if they had explained it well, how much would public opinion be different? Likely not much. The American public adamantly is against the strike. A number of House members have reported overwhelming opposition from their constituents. This isn’t a close public opinion battle that a better White House strategy could have swayed. It’s a major uphill fight.

That doesn’t mean the President has done an acceptable job here. He hasn’t. He switched from taking unilateral action to asking for Congress’s approval at the last second . The Administration asked for an absurdly broad force authorization. Secretary Kerry fumbled questions in Congress. It’s been a mess. But once again, commentators are overstating the value of the bully pulpit. President Obama can continue to condemn the chemical weapon attack and argue that the international community must respond. But, Americans are war-weary. He can only change public opinion so much.

As for his relationships on Capitol Hill, that has been overrated too. This is a major decision and legislators are listening to their constituents on it (see Justin Amash’s twitter account for instance). If Obama can’t sway public opinion in his favor (and I don’t think he can), then twisting the arms of Congressmen is highly unlikely to work too.

The President has done a poor job leading and arguing for this Syrian strike, but even if he passionately laid out the evidence for an attack, he would’ve had trouble convincing the American people. There are rumors that the President will make a national address this week to push for the strike. For those who believe in the power of presidential leadership, this will be a test of the bully pulpit. Don’t get your hopes up of it having any major effect though.