Until President Barack Obama has laid out his case directly to the American people, it is too soon to declare the effort to sell his Syria policy a total failure. But the early returns are not promising. The latest poll shows that the American people overwhelmingly want Congress to vote down authorization. There is rare bipartisan consensus that the administration has not yet convinced Congress to vote against this public sentiment. Obama seems poised to lose the congressional vote, so the heavy lift of his appeal to the public Tuesday night could hardly be heavier.
This has led the leading academic expert on presidential rhetoric, George Edwards, to remind us that the bully pulpit is not all-powerful; indeed it may not be very powerful at all. Edwards notes that even presidents famous for their abilities as Great Communicators -- FDR and Ronald Reagan -- failed to persuade the American people on key policy initiatives. A president like Obama with far more limited communication skills, and serving in an exceptionally partisan environment, should not be expected to move public opinion dramatically.[[LATEST]]
Edwards is right to downplay expectations for a dramatic turnaround in public opinion, but I think this truth may mislead about the limitations on the president as messenger.
Obama's challenge this week is that he must overcome a public that, to a very great extent, has lined up with the message the president has been sending for the past five years. The difficulty Obama will face in changing the public's mind this week may well be testimony to his success in persuading the public of his worldview up until now.
For the past five years, Obama has told the American people that no good thing has come from intervening militarily in the Muslim world and that no bad thing has or will come from refraining from those military ventures -- or, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, unilaterally withdrawing from those ventures. Obama does not talk about what was achieved in Iraq beyond the achievement of "ending the war." As for Afghanistan, the soaring rhetoric of the "good war" from the 2008 campaign quickly gave way to "Afghan good enough" -- and even that lower standard is rarely invoked anymore. The American people have almost never heard Obama talk about anything worth accomplishing in Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, for the past two years the Obama administration has repeatedly told the American people that there is no good military option in Syria and that restraint, however unfortunate its humanitarian consequences might be, is the only prudent course. That may help explain why the American people think there is nothing worth doing militarily in Syria.
For over a decade, the American people heard Democrats mock as "unilateralist" the coalition of the willing of some several dozen allies in Iraq. That may help explain why the American people are not impressed that the number of countries willing to join Obama's Syria venture might reach "in the double digits," as Secretary of State John Kerry put it on Sept. 7.
Even last week, as the president started to make the case for an armed response, he repeatedly emphasized how ambivalent he was about the utility of military force. As a friend of mine observed, Obama's argument seemed to be: "The previous wars we have fought have produced unintended consequences, but I opposed those wars and so you can trust me to manage this new one without producing any unintended consequences." Obama may have persuaded more Americans about the disutility of military tools than he persuaded about his ability to wield those tools effectively.
Obama's communication challenge is to persuade the American people to ignore, or at least to set aside for a while, the message he has sent so consistently since emerging on the national stage.
This is a daunting task, and it may not even be possible, as Edwards suggests. I don't think it will be achievable unless Obama reaches a level of candor he has not yet reached. He should take a page out of President George W. Bush's playbook.
When announcing the Iraq surge in 2007, Bush proposed an abrupt about-face policy roughly as unpopular as the Syria gambit is today. After several years of promising that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," the surge amounted to an acknowledgment that much of what
Bush had been saying about how the old strategy in Iraq was going to succeed turned out not to be true. So Bush gave a remarkably candid speech that acknowledged how the previous policy was failing, and he then laid out why a dramatically different approach could work. Bush did not win converts overnight with that speech. Indeed, many people now running Syria policy -- including Obama himself -- quickly denounced the surge and declared it a failure. Bush, however, was able to secure just enough political support to sustain his oolicy, barely, until the facts on the ground proved him right.
I don't think Bush would have been able to prevail politically on the Iraq surge if he had not acknowledged where he had been wrong up until the abrupt about-face. In a similar way, I don't think Obama will be able to prevail politically on Syria unless he too acknowledges where he has been wrong.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
When the 800-pound gorilla is not lifting his share, others are prone to overstrain themselves in making up the difference. That, in a belabored analogical nutshell, is what is going on with the effort to sell the Syria operation.
The 800-pound gorilla is President Barack Obama. He, far more than any of his advisors, is the one who can command the public attention and make the case for his armed intervention. He has not been totally absent, to be fair, but he also hasn't yet been effectively lifting his share.
Obama's initial decision to go to Congress sounded much like a partisan gotcha (an effect unfortunately reinforced by the way David Axelrod underlined the partisan nature of the president's decisions). Then Obama's most important comment since has been the bizarre attempt to walk back from his own responsibility for drawing the red line on Syria.
It would be hard to script out things for Obama to say that would undermine Republican support for his proposal more efficaciously than what Obama (as well as Axelrod) has already said. So instead of helping with the lift, Obama's public statements may actually be making the lift a little harder. [[LATEST]]
Enter Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (And very belatedly Vice President Joe Biden. Where has Biden been, and is he thinking that this vote imperils his 2016 chances as his 2002 vote imperiled his 2004 presidential run?) Kerry and Hagel have the very challenging task of carrying the load, and I fear they are straining themselves in the process. Kerry has a very tough assignment in wooing votes simultaneously from people who fear Obama will do too much and from people who fear Obama will do too little, which may explain why he has confused would-be supporters with contradictory claims about ground troops, whether the United States is actually trying to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels (if not, why are we promising to arm the rebels?), and whether contingencies are adequately prepared for. And Hagel, who was picked to be the "voice of reason" against military adventures in the Middle East, seems palpably uncomfortable in the role of selling the Syria plan.
Three things would help at this point. First and most importantly, it would help if the administration articulated a coherent strategy for dealing with the challenges posed by Syria and the broader region. As many, including myself, predicted, one of the consequences of Obama's surprise gambit was to expose the incoherence of the underlying strategy. In the absence of a strategy, multiple contradictory assurances to buy votes are inevitable.
Secondly, it would help if the administration could reassure us that it has a coherent political strategy. Journalist Peter Baker's report out of the G-20 summit suggests that the administration doesn't have a coherent political strategy. He writes that the White House advisors deem it "unthinkable" that the president would strike Syria if Congress voted against authorization. And, further, the White House aides say a no vote would sabotage the president's coercive diplomacy regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions and any plans to leave behind a robust force in Afghanistan. In other words, the president impulsively bet the ranch on the House. He bet the ranch of his Syria policy, his Iran policy, and his Afghanistan policy on the House of Representatives. And he has not even gotten Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to whip this vote, on which his aides say his most important regional initiatives depend.
if Baker is accurately reporting on the political calculus in the White House
and if so much hangs in the balance, then the president has to shoulder
the load. He has to make it clear that he, personally, takes responsibility for
this decision and for the consequences. To use a different analogy, if he is
going to coax other politicians onto a rickety raft, he has to lash himself to
the mast and make it clear he will not abandon them as soon as the waves get
choppy. He has to go over the heads of Congress and explain directly to the American people why he is doing something that runs so apparently contrary to his partisan messaging of the past decade. Now at the eleventh hour, the White House is indicating the president intends to do this.
In short, he has to lead and apparently he might start doing that.
A president who leads just might get others to follow, provided he knows where he is going.
Update: Obama conceded that he has a "heavy lift" before him in his press conference today, but his meandering comments likely will not lift many votes. He said that he is trying to impart a sense of urgency, but at the same time acknowledged that in his view there is no imminent threat. He insisted that this action would be limited, but then said if Syria's Bashar al-Assad responds with more attacks it will be easier to escalate still further. I expect that when the president speaks to the American people directly this coming Tuesday, he will deliver a more focused and coherent explanation of his strategy, one that dwells less on how disappointed he will be with other political leaders who shirk their responsibilities and instead dwells more on how he intends to carry out his own.
Thumbnail photo: Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/Bradenton Herald/MCT via Getty Images
In dark times, as storm clouds gather over Syria and nations align themselves on either side of the conflict (or fall by the wayside), global leaders have gathered in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to discuss ... the global taxation of multinational corporations? The deleterious effects of the potential tapering of the U.S. Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy?
This seems a bit absurd. Far be it from me to decry a good conversation about the global economy, but the microeconomic concept of opportunity cost comes into play here. Is this a good use of President Obama's time?
Consider some of the reasons one might support attendance:
1. A consequential
agenda. Issues such as international taxation, monetary coordination, and
global growth are important. They are discussed at academic conferences all the
time. The question is whether much more will be achieved by having world
leaders around the table. I addressed
the question of the G-20's ineffectual efforts on growth not long ago.
On monetary coordination, developing nations such as India,
Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa are rightly concerned
about their plunging currencies, as money rushes out of emerging markets and
back toward the developed world. It would aid them in their efforts if the
major developed-world central banks were to loosen their monetary policy (cut
rates, postpone tapering). But they won't. The major central banks appear
singularly focused on their domestic mandates. In the United States, given the
independence of the Federal Reserve, there's not even much Barack Obama could
do about tapering, even if he were so inclined, at least until he appoints
Chairman Ben Bernanke's successor.
Nor does global tax coordination seem much more promising. In the United States, talk of tax reform has foundered on questions of what will happen with the revenue. It also waits far back in line, behind a full agenda before the U.S. Congress. The marginal impact of a G-20 communiqué on the debate is likely to be near zero. The economic agenda does not seem to demand the president's presence.
2. Respect for multilateral institutions. Until the last couple of weeks, this would have seemed a serious argument. In the context of Syria's use of chemical weapons, however, the administration has taken a decidedly pragmatic, rather than dutiful, approach to the United Nations. If Russia is sure to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Syria, why even bother? That makes a certain degree of sense, but why should such pragmatism not extend to the G-20? What will it really accomplish along these lines? In each case, if there is no cost to observing diplomatic niceties, then we should clearly do so. But what if the cost is high?
3. Basic manners. Given that the Russians were so nice as to invite us, it would be rude to decline at the last minute.
4. It's all about Syria anyway. Even though the G-20 agenda may nominally be filled with economic topics, the gathering still provides an opportunity to coordinate with other leaders on the Middle East.
The problem with this argument is that there seems little room for further progress along these lines. Obama will not be holding bilateral discussions with either British Prime Minister David Cameron or Russian President Vladimir Putin. The French were already aligned. China warned that a strike against Syria would harm the global economy -- unhelpful to the U.S. president's cause, but at least bringing the discussion back to the nominal purpose of the gathering.[[LATEST]]
At best, Obama may leave the G-20 unscathed on the topic of Syria. At worst, he could be bruised by one of Putin's throws.
So what is the opportunity cost of the president's G-20 attendance? He is not home, persuading a skeptical public to back his plans for Syria. Shadow Government's Peter Feaver has repeatedly stressed the importance of civilian leaders building public support for a war effort. In a recent Pew poll, public opinion ran strongly against Syrian airstrikes, with 48 percent opposed and 29 percent in support (with 23 percent uncertain). The strongest opposition came from Democrats and independents, with Republicans less opposed.
For all the abuse it takes, Congress is usually responsive to the constituents its members represent. Early vote tallies signal problems in the House. The House leadership has offered the president support, but a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner stated: "All votes authorizing the use of military force are conscience votes for members, and passage will require direct, continuous engagement from the White House."
The impending congressional vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria has enormous implications for both U.S. standing in the world and the remainder of this president's term. While Vice President Joe Biden and other aides can lobby lawmakers this week, it will be a difficult sell in the face of deep public skepticism. Obama is uniquely positioned to win over the public through persistent, reasoned argument. Except he's in Russia.
Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama's campaign team is out in full force doing what the U.S. president himself is giving only passing attention to: building the case for a limited military strike on targets only symbolically related to chemical weapons and calibrated to have no effect on the brutal civil war grinding on and producing ever more radical rebels who are consolidating power in swaths of Syria.
In yet one more example that the Chicago School is better at campaigning than governing, David Axelrod bragged that the president had forced Congress to take responsibility for Syria. He further taunted Congress -- before the vote! -- as not knowing what to do. The president and his team assert he may attack Syria even if Congress withholds the authorization he has requested. How this builds support, either across the aisle or in Democratic ranks, where for many liberals this will be a difficult vote for principled reasons, is a mystery. But it is consistent with the administration's inability to resist basketball court swagger -- as is hinting that winning congressional authorization on military action will be parlayed into an ownership of Republican votes on raising the debt ceiling and other urgent issues on which the president has been unable to build a coalition and unwilling much to try. Surely a White House that will be decimated both domestically and internationally should the vote fail ought to be instead cajoling, horse trading, and praising to garner votes?
A "full-court press" by the White House evidently consists of major policy statements delivered over the Labor Day weekend, selective declassification of intelligence with assurances that this cabinet would never shade intelligence, ringing speeches by the secretary of state (and John Kerry was resplendent), allowing members of Congress to remain in their districts to maximize exposure to public skepticism rather than call them back for a war vote at which the president addresses a joint session of Congress, and a presidential willingness to cancel a fundraising trip to California next week, should that prove absolutely necessary. This is an administration willing to forego European missile defense to buy questionable Russian support on Iran sanctions but unwilling to forgo anything in Obama's agenda to buy congressional support for his war in Syria. The president should watch Spielberg's Lincoln for a teachable moment.[[LATEST]]
Rosa Brooks's elegiac column best outlines the downward spiral of the Obama administration. The case made by the administration in congressional hearings is a stunning reversal of previous policy: What began as resistance in the face of pressure to act is now desperate rationalization for action. Now Kerry insists extremists constitute only "15 to 25 percent" of rebel forces (as though that were manageable), when just weeks ago a senior intelligence official explained at the Aspen Security Forum that more than a thousand separate factions are fighting. Now Kerry insists moderate rebels are gaining in influence thanks to equipment provided by Saudi Arabia, even as commanders of four of the five major rebel fighting forces threaten to align with the al-Nusra Front. Now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel estimates the cost of planned military operations only in the "tens of millions," while Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had recently denied any military action was possible under a billion. Now intelligence agencies have a rock-solid hold on every aspect of Syria's chemical weapons attack, though Dempsey not long ago testified that we know less now than we did a year ago about Syria. Now the president considers the prohibition on chemical weapons use a national interest; the previous 13 chemical attacks by Syria over the past year somehow did not constitute a cause for war. Now the world has drawn a red line, even though the world is conspicuously absent in providing political support, mandates from international institutions, or military forces for action against Syria.
Yet with all the administration's bungling, Congress has now before it a choice. Should legislators support the president's request or deny him authorization? If they support, they will be complicit in what's to come, and the president's "strategy" is laughably unstrategic. It's a terrible plan, narcissistic to the point of ignoring predictable reactions by both enemies and friends. Many in Congress are understandably concerned about voter backlash -- and this president has very short coattails. Only about 20 percent of the public supports intervening in Syria; the administration is nowhere near winning the argument. There is stunning hypocrisy in this president, who took campaign swings through Iraq to highlight his opposition to the war that the United States was fighting and to Germany to highlight his international appeal, now somberly intoning that politics must stop at the water's edge.
But none of these concerns erases the stubborn fact that it would be bad for our country to deny the president congressional support to attack Syria. Obama has damaged American credibility with his choices; Congress has an opportunity to provide some margin of repair.
A vote in favor of the resolution would demonstrate to the world that We the People are often better than our government, able to make difficult decisions when difficult decisions need to be made. That we struggle to make manifest our principles and beliefs, even in complicated circumstances. That we don't avert our eyes from evil, even when we are weary of war. That we understand our choices set standards to shape the international order and that responsibility is often a lonely one.
Republicans in Congress should not allow the president to foist on them responsibility that is properly and constitutionally settled on the commander in chief. It is the president who develops policies and carries out military action; he should come up with a better one. Congress should give him the authority while criticizing his plan.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
The Washington Post has revealed the intense concern of the U.S. intelligence community about Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. In addition to gaps in U.S. information about nuclear weapons storage and safeguards, American analysts are worried about the risk of terrorist attacks against nuclear facilities in Pakistan as well as the risk that individual Pakistani nuclear weapons handlers could go rogue in ways that endanger unified national control over these weapons of mass destruction.
These concerns raise a wider question for a U.S. national security establishment whose worst nightmares include the collapse of the Pakistani state -- with all its implications for empowerment of terrorists, a regional explosion of violent extremism, war with India, and loss of control over the country's nuclear weapons. That larger question is: Does Pakistan's nuclear arsenal promote the country's unity or its disaggregation?
This is a complicated puzzle, in part because nuclear war in South Asia may be more likely as long as nuclear weapons help hold Pakistan together and embolden its military leaders to pursue foreign adventures under the nuclear umbrella. So if we argue that nuclear weapons help maintain Pakistan's integrity as a state -- by empowering and cohering the Pakistani Army -- they may at the same time undermine regional stability and security by making regional war more likely.
As South Asia scholar Christine Fair of Georgetown University has argued, the Pakistani military's sponsorship of "jihad under the nuclear umbrella" has gravely undermined the security of Pakistan's neighborhood -- making possible war with India over Kargil in 1999, the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, and Pakistan's ongoing support for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other violent extremists.
Moreover, Pakistan's proliferation of nuclear technologies has seeded extra-regional instability by boosting "rogue state" nuclear weapons programs as far afield as North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Syria. Worryingly, rather than pursuing a policy of minimal deterrence along Indian lines, Pakistan's military leaders are banking on the future benefits of nuclear weapons by overseeing the proportionately biggest nuclear buildup of any power, developing tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, and dispersing the nuclear arsenal to ensure its survivability in the event of attack by either the United States or India. (Note that most Pakistanis identify the United States, not India, as their country's primary adversary, despite an alliance dating to 1954 and nearly $30 billion in American assistance since 2001.)
The nuclear arsenal sustains Pakistan's unbalanced internal power structure, underwriting Army dominance over elected politicians and neutering civilian control of national security policy; civilian leaders have no practical authority over Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Whether one believes the arsenal's governance implications generate stability or instability within Pakistan depends on whether one believes that Army domination of the country is a stabilizing or destabilizing factor.
A similarly split opinion derives from whether one deems the Pakistan Army the country's most competent institution and therefore the best steward of weapons whose fall into the wrong hands could lead to global crisis -- or whether one views the Army's history of reckless risk-taking, from sponsoring terrorist attacks against the United States and India to launching multiple wars against India that it had no hope of winning, as a flashing "DANGER" sign suggesting that nuclear weapons are far more likely to be used "rationally" by the armed forces in pursuit of Pakistan's traditional policies of keeping its neighbors off balance.
There is no question that the seizure of power by a radicalized group of generals with a revolutionary anti-Indian, anti-American, and social-transformation agenda within Pakistan becomes a far more dangerous scenario in the context of nuclear weapons. Similarly, the geographical dispersal of the country's nuclear arsenal and the relatively low level of authority a battlefield commander would require to employ tactical nuclear weapons raise the risk of their use outside the chain of command.
This also raises the risk that the Pakistani Taliban, even if it cannot seize the commanding heights of state institutions, could seize either by force or through infiltration a nuclear warhead at an individual installation and use it to hold the country -- and the world -- to ransom. American intelligence analysts covering Pakistan will continue to lose sleep for a long time to come.
Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama was right to seek congressional approval for an attack on Syria, even if he took too long to do so. How he and his White House team are going about winning support for their still-vague plan of attack is, however, quite a different and more troubling matter. In a word, the president seems once again to be playing tactical politics while warning of the strategic consequences of not toeing his line.
Fed by administration innuendo, media reports have been describing the vote as one whose fate rests squarely on Republican shoulders, as if Democrats who oppose intervention are mere bystanders. The vote is also being portrayed as one that will pit neoconservatives against neo-isolationists, as if there can be no principled opposition to an uncertain and dangerous Syrian adventure that does not emanate from the Tea Party crowd.
Yet there are many legislators, as well as military and national security analysts, who have supported military interventions in the past and would do so again in the future, but who are seriously troubled by the administration's plan. For these legislators, it is not a matter of doubting the intelligence that appears to prove conclusively that Bashar al-Assad employed chemical weapons. Rather, for them the concern is that an attack on Syria would not only do little to further American strategic interests, but would actually harm them.[[LATEST]]
After all, if Assad falls, Washington will again have forced regime change in the Arab Middle East, whether directly, as in Iraq, or indirectly, as in Libya. Yet another regime change is likely to unleash a new wave of Arab anti-Americanism. In addition, it would provide a boost to Islamic radicalism as well, especially since the Islamists would be in an excellent position to seize power in Damascus, with serious implications for the security of the moderate Arab states and, of course, Israel. On the other hand, if Assad survives, the damage to Iran and Hezbollah would be minimal, with the threat to Israel in particular in no way diminished.
Yet the administration's political maneuverings do not end with characterizing those who question its policies as latter-day "Know Nothings." To make matters even worse, top White House officials have been contacting Jewish rabbis, leaders, and organizations on the occasion of the Jewish new year (which begins this week) to argue that a strike against Syria is the best way to ensure that Iran does not develop a bomb that it would likely use against Israel. Presumably, the administration hopes that Jewish groups will take its dire warnings to heart and pressure pro-Israel congressmen in particular to support the administration's proposed resolution authorizing an operation against Assad's forces.
Such entreaties are reminiscent of Ahmed Chalabi's smarmy efforts to convince Washington in the spring and summer of 2002 that a new Iraqi regime would open the old British pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa. And they are just as distasteful. The last thing Israel and its American supporters need is to be dragged into a debate on a complex, highly nuanced issue with few good options, uncertain costs, and no clearly positive outcomes.
Israeli policymakers have generally been silent about their own preferred conclusion to the Syrian civil war precisely because they recognize that there are few good outcomes for Israel, whether or not Assad remains in power. Israel's American friends know that the issue is not really about Israel. It is not that they are lobbying the White House. The White House has been lobbying them. One can only hope that the administration will focus on what it views are the medium- and long-term strategic merits of its case, whatever these might be, and not treat a serious national security matter as yet another opportunity to score political points on Capitol Hill.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Whether he knows it or not, Barack Obama is leading the United States into war with Syria. It is unclear whether he conceives of U.S. military strikes in response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own people as war, but that's precisely what it would be. To quote Carl von Clausewitz's masterpiece, On War, war is "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." As the long-dead Prussian soldier and scholar reminds us, war is not merely blind violence, but the use of force to achieve a political aim against a thinking, responsive enemy. Clausewitz similarly counsels that "No one starts a war -- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so -- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."
Congressional debate over whether to authorize the president to use force in Syria can serve a useful purpose if it forces the administration to clarify what it hopes to achieve by using force against Syria and how it intends to achieve that object: in other words, our political aims and our strategy to achieve them. Specifically, Congress should ask the administration to answer the following questions:
After all, Clausewitz reminds us, in war it is crucial "not to take the first step without considering the last."
Image: By Karl wilhelm Wach (www.nodulo.org/ec/2007/n066p13.htm) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The unfolding fiasco of President Barack Obama's Syria policy shows why professors rarely make good presidents. With Obama having previously been a law professor for many years, some of his most debilitating characteristics come out when he lapses back into professorial mode. (As a professor myself, I recognize these things all too well.) This has been on painful display over the past few weeks, as the president seems to have been arguing with himself over his own Middle East policy, especially on Egypt and Syria. The vacillations, the hand-wringing, the endless second-guessing, the sanctimonious lecturing, the odd detachment from decisions of tremendous consequence --- all of these are worthy more of the faculty lounge than the commander in chief. (Note in contrast that one of Obama's signature successes came when he abandoned professor mode and acted decisively in ordering the bin Laden raid.)
Just in the last two weeks we've seen Obama take both sides of multiple issues, including whether the United States will continue staying out of the Syrian conflict or will intervene; whether an attack needs to take place imminently or not; whether an attack needs U.N. Security Council endorsement or not; whether an attack needs the support of allied nations or not; whether an attack needs congressional support or not; whether American credibility is at stake in Syria or not, and so on.
Graduate school seminars are appropriate places to talk endlessly about all sides of an issue while never making and implementing a decision; the Oval Office is not.
Winston Churchill's theme to the concluding book of his six-volume history of World War II is "How the Great Democracies Triumphed, and So Were Able to Resume the Follies Which Had So Nearly Cost Them Their Life." The stakes in the Middle East today are nowhere near as severe as those of World War II, but Churchill's warning against democratic follies comes to mind in the midst of the confusions besetting both Washington and London. While Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ultimately bear the most responsibility for the vote debacle in the House of Commons, Obama is not without fault. He could have worked with Cameron to make a case for attacking Syria to the British public before the vote, and he also could have used his considerable political capital with Miliband and the Labour Party to secure the opposition's support. Ultimately this marks yet another failure of diplomacy by this administration, continuing an unhappy "diplomatic deficit" I have described before.
Meanwhile the public debate on process has obscured the more fundamental problem: The White House's intended use of force is completely misaligned with its policy goals in Syria. This administration's stated intention to do limited and circumscribed strikes advertised well in advance is at odds with its stated goal of punishing Bashar al-Assad's regime for the regime's chemical weapons use. In fact, the White House's planned approach will likely do just the opposite: It will embolden Assad and perhaps reassure other tyrants pursuing weapons of mass destruction as well. Waiting a few weeks, announcing to the world that you don't want to inflict too much pain, and then lobbing a few cruise missiles at empty warehouses in Damascus tells Assad and his ilk that there is little cost to be paid for using weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations. (Daniel Byman lays out in more detail the manifest weaknesses of this approach, as does Peter Wehner, and Peter Feaver points out how it masks the more fundamental problem of no White House strategy whatsoever for the region.)
In Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton described the importance of "Energy in the Executive," particularly "in the conduct of war, in which the energy of the executive is the bulwark of the national security." By this he meant that the president of the United States needs to be able to act with dispatch, clarity, and authority, in contrast to the "feeble Executive" hamstrung by gratuitous constraints and indecision. As the U.S. Congress prepares to take up the Syria debate, I hope legislators will resist the temptation to mimic the follies that Churchill warned against and further enfeeble an already weakened president.
Congressional Republicans in particular have an opportunity to elevate the debate, to put America's global standing and interests ahead of the chance to score political points. Republicans should not let our disappointment with Obama detract from the need to restore American credibility on the world stage and inflict long-overdue punishment on a brutal dictator and adversary. As a friend of mine suggested, the upcoming Syria debate might also be an opportunity for the GOP to restore the defense spending cut by the sequester -- resources that will be needed to maintain robust force projection in the Middle East among other places. On Syria itself, I hope Congress authorizes Obama to impose severe punitive measures that cripple the Assad regime -- and urges him to do just that.
Photo: EPA/ROBERT SULLIVAN
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.