Shadow Government

Obama’s Desperate Gambit

This is a move borne out of weakness.

Going to Congress could have been a sign of strength if it had been done last week, before all of the signaling from the White House of an imminent attack. But aides are not even trying to spin this as a sign of presidential resolve. Instead, their own backgrounders describe it as borne partly out of political weakness, as the president stumbled on his march to war over the past week, and partly out of political pique at congressional critics. As an aide put it, "We don't want them [Members of Congress] to have their cake and eat it, too."

Given the predicament the administration's own rhetoric put Obama in, the congressional authorization gambit may be the most tactically shrewd move left to the president. But it could still backfire in ways that hurt both Obama and the country.

It might be tactically shrewd if Obama wins a decisive vote of confidence, say, something that eclipses the strong bipartisan majority that endorsed President George W. Bush's confrontation with Iraq (77-23 votes in the Senate, 296-133 votes in the House). That vote did provide political momentum for the Iraq war and did implicate Democrats in the Iraq policy. Let us not forget that that vote is why we have a President Obama and did not have a President Kerry, nor a President Biden, nor a President Hillary Clinton.

But I doubt that Obama will get such a strong political victory. His team has a very poor track record of building bipartisan coalitions on foreign policy and the last two weeks of policy incoherence have not given them any momentum. Moreover, Obama will likely struggle to hold his left wing base, while isolationist sentiments will dampen Republican support. Does Obama have the votes to override, say, a Senator Paul filibuster? Can Obama whip enough of the far left Democrats to compensate for lost votes on the right? And look for all those nay-voters to use talking points drafted from President Obama's and his advisor's own statements over the past two years defending their hitherto policy of staying out of Syria.

On the other hand, it might be tactically shrewd if, having crashed into the Syrian iceberg, the president wants simply to take down some Republicans with him as his policy Titanic sinks below the waves. If the Republicans vote down the Syrian bill Obama can forgo the strikes (the preference he signals, wittingly or not, almost every time he speaks on the issue) and blame Republicans for it. Judging from what the leaky White House was saying about the president's abrupt reversal, this might be the core objective right now.

Yet none of these tactical gains will overcome the president's biggest problem: he has no viable strategy for Syria or for the larger region.

And therein lies the biggest risk in going belatedly to Congress: the debate will necessarily expose this inconvenient truth. Punishing or not punishing Syria for crossing the chemical weapons red line is not a strategy. At best, it is only part of a strategy, and in this case President Obama has not articulated a viable larger strategy.

It will be impossible to conduct this congressional debate without addressing what the president intends to do about the turmoil in the region, and how these strikes serve that larger strategy. Right now, the administration cannot answer those questions. Over the next couple weeks, they will scramble to supply one.

The only optimistic outcome I can think of is that the debate manages to not only expose the strategic deficit, but also prods the administration finally to confront it and overcome it with a new, coherent and sufficiently resourced approach to the region. In this rosiest of scenarios, the necessity to work across the aisle in pursuit of congressional authorization might even be the wake-up call the administration has hitherto resisted.  

But I am not optimistic this rosy scenario will arise. It seems more likely that the congressional chapter of the Syrian saga will result in any of several bad outcomes:

* a razor thin vote of approval that hardens political divisions in the country and exposes but does not fix Obama's strategy deficit, obligating the administration to go forward with minimal political support.

* a negative vote that Obama "honors" thus yielding all of the negative consequences the president himself said inaction in the face of chemical use would engender.  

* a negative vote that Obama defies -- a defiance that is almost without precedent (and the only precedents I can think of are bad, very bad: Iran-Contra).

And yet, even after all of those bad outcomes, the president will still have to struggle through many more chapters of the saga, confronting all of the regional problems that will remain without a strategy commensurate with the task and even weaker politically than he was just a few short weeks ago.

This last prospect is one that should please no one who cares about the national  interest.  Obama is in perilous waters, but he has taken us in the ship of state with him there.  We all should hope that he gets us out of this more deftly than he got us in.

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

Shadow Government

On Syria, Obama Administration Disproves Obama Doctrine

President Barack Obama has turned to Congress for support and legitimization of the military attack his administration is contemplating against the Syrian government. The White House was smart to reverse itself, seeing that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe he should seek congressional support and nearly that proportion is skeptical of intervention in Syria. It's judicious politics for him to win the argument and share responsibility for military action in defense of an "international norm" that does not directly affect our war-weary country.

The president asserted he did not require congressional authorization for action in Libya because he had a U.N. Security Council mandate. Syria is shaping up to be the mirror image: The president is seeking domestic support because he cannot attain international backing.  

It's never a good thing when our government's policy is indistinguishable from Onion parodies of its policy. The unforced errors -- setting red lines and then allowing them to be crossed, Gen. Martin Dempsey defending the president's inaction in Syria just before the president decides action is necessary, undercutting the U.N. by announcing our intelligence findings in advance of theirs, torrents of leaks, the president's public vacillation -- are alone enough to make one marvel at the breadth of our power that the United States can remain so influential while being so ineffectual.

These latest turns of the Obama administration's Syria policy do more than confirm the administration's strategic illiteracy; they refute the president's broader claims about the international order and how America should engage that order.

The president's National Security Strategy outlines Obama's vision of a world in which countries refrain from the use of military force without approval of the United Nations Security Council. Whether they believed their policies would be so attractive that countries would not object or they believed U.S. power should be restrained when it could not gain approval, the president is now in the position of wanting to use military force to uphold an international norm and being refused an international mandate from the United Nations, from the relevant regional organization, the Arab League, and even from that most reliable ally, Britain.

Another central element of the administration's doctrine is that cooperation with adversaries can foster better foreign-policy outcomes. This idea formed the basis for the Russia reset and included rejecting regime change as a U.S. objective in Iran and elsewhere, hesitance about democracy promotion efforts, and a tendency to whitewash depredations -- think Secretary Hillary Clinton equivocating about China's human rights record or declaring Bashar al-Assad a reformer while he was already killing Syrians. Now the administration finds its policy preferences shackled by the very adversaries it has been courting: Russia, China, Iran. The White House seems surprised to find hostility enduring, didn't bother to understand the deep roots of opposition and conflicting interests, and didn't build the bases for preserving our autonomy and limiting their latitude. 

And then there's leading from behind. The administration celebrated putting others at the forefront, our role on the margins of effort (even as the White House took credit for what others achieved). But that requires others willing and able to do so. It's worth noting that only NATO among international organizations has supported action against Syria; Europeans continue to be the allies most likely to run risks to uphold norms and law. They were perhaps winnable constituencies, if the president had expended the effort to win them. Obama having such faith in his ability to persuade is disinclined to engage in the retail work of building support. With Britain out and many allies unwilling to act for the very reasons the Obama administration has trumpeted to justify its own inaction, NATO's support will have little practical effect. Having taken for granted the support of staunch allies, the administration cannot even count on them.

"Smart power" in which the administration put such store has been buried in the grave of urgency. When pressed to "do something," the something the White House evidently selected is plinking military targets specially selected not to have strategic resonance. Far from identifying a political end state and then having the interagency fill in the diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military means to achieve it, the Obama administration is using military force as an end in itself.

The president is thus left in the circumstance of arguing for the very approach he condemned in his predecessor: identifying a systemic threat to the international order that the international institutions will not address, adversaries aligned to preclude the trappings of legitimization, asserting that the will of the American people itself constitutes adequate allies, regional organizations divided, and scrambling to drum up a "coalition of the willing" in which the overwhelming burden will fall to the United States to use military force whose effects could very well either be wholly ineffective or worsen the threats to our country.

There's a wonderful passage in Shakespeare's Henry IV in which Glendower claims to have the power to "call spirits from the vasty deep." Hotspur deflates him by answering, "Will they come when you do call?" The Obama administration believed in "the international community." The mess Obama finds himself in on Syria suggests the international community doesn't believe in him.

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images