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.

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.