In Support of Congressional Authorization on Syria

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.

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

Shadow Government

Pakistan and the Nuclear Nightmare

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.