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.

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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.

Obama Should Not Be Embarrassed if the Syria Resolution Fails

There’s been a widespread assumption in the media that if Congress does not approve of the force authorization in Syria, it will be a major embarrassment for President Obama. The New York Times called it “one of the riskiest gambles of his presidency.” A McClatchy article on the topic was titled “Obama risks embarrassing loss in Congress.” The Financial Times published a piece titled “Barack Obama risks more than just his credibility on Syria.” It’s easy to find more examples.

But this line of thinking is not just dead wrong, it’s also damaging to our democracy.

President Obama and future presidents should not think that consulting Congress is a risky proposition. They should not think that a defeat in Congress would be a huge embarrassment to their administration. It’s vital that the executive branch consult with the legislative branch before going to war. That’s how democracy works. It’s a system of checks and balances.

And contrary to President Obama’s comments, that system of checks and balances extends to war-making authority as well. Obama is wrong when he says he has the unilateral authority to strike Syria. We’ve grown accustomed to presidents seizing that power, but the fact of the matter is that except under extreme circumstances where the national security of the United States is at risk, only Congress has the power to declare war. This isn’t an extreme circumstance. President Obama is following the Constitution by asking Congress for approval.

That’s what makes articles like the ones I listed above so dangerous. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy. A defeat in Congress is only embarrassing for the President, because the media has framed it that way. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf had an excellent post yesterday that outlined how perverse this thinking is:

If you’re someone who personalizes politics, fetishizes disagreement, and intends to treat a Congressional rejection of a strike on Syria as a “humiliation” for Obama, the Times frame makes some sense, but make no mistake: Its assessment of the Syria debate’s impact is self-fulfilling prophecy from an insular, status-obsessed elite. Obama’s approach is “a gamble” because and only because other insiders imagine that a president being denied by Congress — gasp! — is embarrassing, rather than a healthy manifestation of Madisonian checks.

The executive is more prone to war than the legislature or the people. This was foreseen.

This is even more dangerous, because it sends a message to future presidents that consulting with Congress (and abiding by the Constitution) is a major risk that can derail an entire presidency. We don’t know how the current vote will turn out, but if Congress does not pass the resolution and the media treats it as a massive disgrace to the President, it will be a grave disservice to our country. Hopefully, future administrations will follow the Constitution and consult Congress. But the past couple of Presidents have demonstrated that they don’t always think they need Congress’s approval to wage war. Will a future President ever go to Congress again if he (or she) knows that rejection will be a black mark on his (or her) presidency and derail his (or her) entire agenda?

If Congress rejects the authorization, we should treat it as a victory for democracy, not a failure of the presidency. That would signal to future presidents that asking Congress for permission to wage war is not a major gamble. Framing it otherwise only incentivizes them to find a way around the system of checks and balances.

Is that really the framework the media intends to promote? I hope not.