Going To Congress Was A Mistake: What It Says About President Obama
Now, before I defend the premise of this post, I just want to make three points. First, President Obama deciding to seek Congressional authority for a strike against Syria is a good thing from a purely constitutional standpoint. The idea of going to the people’s representatives and asking for permission before embroiling our military in conflict is a positive development for our democracy. Second, I am not endorsing any strike against Syria, let alone one that doesn’t have Congressional authority. I remain skeptical about exactly what such a strike would accomplish, and I’m concerned about what it could give way to in an already tumultuous part of the world. Finally, in last night’s Presidential Address, he asked Congress to delay the Syria vote and give diplomacy a chance to work. So, technically, the Obama Administration, at the very least, agrees that it’s probably not a good idea to have them vote to authorize a strike right now (read: ever).
Having said that, I often look at these sorts of things through the prism of politics and let the more capable people analyze the merits of the policy itself. After listening to the President’s address last night and considering exactly how we got to this point, it’s my humble estimation that the Obama Administration made several missteps that forced them to be reactionary rather than in a position of leadership. I hate to borrow an oft-used, hollow term like “leading from behind,” but there’s a serious case to be made that such a term applies here. Let’s examine why.
This entire episode goes back to August 2012, and it involves an off-the-cuff remark made by President Obama regarding intelligence involving Syria and chemical weapons. I’d like to point out that it was August 2012, approximately 3 months before the U.S. presidential election. Now, the timing may be contextually relevant to Obama’s remarks, and then again it may not be. Just thought I’d point it out. So, anyway, there’s intelligence piling up that strongly points to President Bashir Assad preparing to use chemical weapons. While the U.S. was working the diplomatic channels to stop that from happening, President Obama publicly commented on the situation and, according to NYTimes sources, went much further than some of his advisers were expecting
Here’s what he said:
“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Mr. Obama said in response to questions at an impromptu news conference at the White House. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Not a lot a wiggle-room there, right? There’s a lot to be said about the err of those comments, but I want to get to the part where he involved Congress, so I’ll move on. President Obama opened his mouth and created policy that day. It’s both a gift and curse of being the President of the United States. Anything you say can have world-affecting consequences, and this is a prime example of that. Fast-forward to exactly a year later, August 2013, and it turns out that the “red line” Obama talked about has been crossed. The U.S. immediately expresses outrage and announces that they are looking seriously into the matter. As evidence proving the Syrian government’s complicity in the use of chemical weapons mounts, the U.S. begins to posture towards a military response. On a basic level, I understand the move. President Obama, at that point, was thinking about American credibility and the kind of nightmare scenarios that could play out should American resolve and the commitment to backing up words with action be doubted. I’d argue that such a line of thinking lacks the nuance necessary for handling a crisis of this complexity, but that’s something we can re-litigate at another time.
Once the president and his top officials like Secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, heads of the State Department and the Department of Defense, respectively, began making the case for a military response, President Obama should have simply ordered the targeted strikes. Again, I am not endorsing this as good policy, but the political consequences would have paled in comparison to the fallout we’re seeing now. At the very least, it would have alleviated the worries the Administration clearly had about jeopardizing American credibility around the world. Assuming the stated objective of the strikes (sending a message to Assad and others that chemical weapons are a no-no, and also weakening Assad’s ability to carry out future attacks) were met, that would also have been a positive outcome. At home, President Obama would have some serious explaining to do, particularly with the war-weary left and the libertarian right, but, what’s the old adage? Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.
It’s the asking for permission – going to Congress for authorization – that has President Obama looking funny in the light, more so than even his original “red line” comment. It’s hurt him on a few different levels. First, it projected American weakness. Keep in mind that, a week or so prior, the British Prime Minister made the same decision. He, too, went to his parliament for approval of military action. You know what happened? He was soundly defeated. It was actually pretty embarrassing for him. His parliament neutered him for the world to see, and now people are writing articles like this questioning what role the U.K. will play on the world stage going forward. And not just as it relates to Syria, either. In general. It’s real out here.
I’m convinced that it was the U.K.’s exit from any potential military involvement that triggered Obama’s desire to back away from a military strike. He made the “red line” comment without really giving it much thought, then was put in a position where he had to project strength and protect American credibility, a task he would have reluctantly gone through with had NATO, the Arab League, Britain – hell someone besides France – backed him up. Once he realized the military support wasn’t there, he pivoted towards seeking Congressional authority under the guise of respecting democracy and the role Congress plays in it. Again, it’s an excellent byproduct of his retreat, but probably not the primary intended purpose. It was a desperate move by someone in an uncomfortable and weak position.
Secondly, going to Congress, at the very least, gives the appearance of dithering. How do you go from clear saber-rattling and making a strong case for a military strike to suddenly wanting to ask for permission? That was another projection of weakness, in my opinion. It demonstrated that events are dictating policy at the highest levels of the Administration, rather than President Obama and his advisers getting ahead of it all and shaping events with a sound and coherent strategy. And that does happen. Ari Melber said recently that “sometimes diplomacy is unscripted.” My issue is more so with the incoherence of it all, though. His speech last night was a perfect example. It was a good speech because it made a strong, substantive case for striking Syria. It was also a good speech because it made a strong, substantive case against striking Syria. In his defense, the tone of his speech was influenced by the two competing objectives that the president wants to bring together: Preserving American credibility and avoiding a military conflict.
Basically, he wants to find a way to get out of this situation without America looking like a punk.
The Russian-backed proposal that would demand Syria transfer ownership of their chemical weapons arsenal to the international community, thereby avoiding a military response altogether, is seriously a blessing. Russia’s main objective wasn’t to bail out the United States, but rather to protect their interests by minimizing a conflict that could have serious ramifications for them. It just worked out that way for the president. It gave President Obama a chance to kill two birds with one stone: avoid an embarrassing rejection by Congress and seek the diplomatic option he’s probably secretly wanted all along.
So what does this all say about President Obama? Although I do believe it revealed some serious weaknesses, I think it confirms something about him that one could find rather encouraging. President Obama’s default mode is to be deliberative, careful and calculated. He is also not a war-monger, at least not the kind that goes out looking for conflict. He made an off-the-cuff, not very well thought out comment, and what we’re seeing is a president trying to fix that in the cleanest way possible. Going to Congress was an exit strategy of sorts. And to his credit, it worked. I think he’s someone who prefers international cooperation and the complete exhaustion of all diplomatic options before using force, which to me is a great thing. Going forward, he just needs to stake out a policy position and pursue it with a lot more savvy and conviction than he did with Syria.
We’ll see how this all plays out.