By: Jonathan Godoy
In the week and half since the chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus, very few pieces of truly new information have come to light. The only one of note seems to be a continuously hackneyed response and lack of leadership from premier world leaders, especially those of the United States and Western Europe. Nearly every leader in the international community has refused to actually engage the situation; most have done this not due to personal preferences, but because of political forces at home preventing them from undertaking anything remotely related to military action. This phenomenon’s most conspicuous victim, British Prime Minister David Cameron, suffered an embarrassing defeat when Parliament voted against launching any attacks by a small margin. The final actors still left on the stage, the United States, France and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, have adopted stances that are enigmatic and opaque—perhaps purposefully so. French President Francois Hollande has weakly expressed support for limited action. Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has called for an international response, but refused to contribute serious military backing and resources to such an attack. Meanwhile, the United States has waxed and waned on its stance, with the president and Secretary of State John Kerry making statements that seek to strike a delicate, but at times conflicting, balance, the former remaining more calculated and ambiguous, while the latter being more critical and urgent in his remarks.
It is likely that the White House’s stance has been driven by two major factors. First, the president has always been reserved on issues of foreign intervention and stood purposefully apart from the so-called military “hawks.” Second, the administration is well aware that the present political climate at home is not friendly aggressive interventionism. Even after the chemical attack on August 21, polls show most Americans do not want direct military intervention. Additionally, the president’s approval ratings on foreign policy, once his strong suit, have taken a noticeable dip. Being the politically calculating man that he is, President Obama likely does not want to pursue a course of action that would tarnish his political image any more. All of these factors undoubtedly were motives for the president’s speech from the White House Rose Garden on Saturday morning.
Admittedly, the president took a justifiably strong stance in favor of action and outlined, with some degree of success, our national interest in following through with such a response. His major point—that America will follow through on its promises of military action and justice—is a crucial premise in the argument for an attack, however limited. It remains a fact that the promise to act if Assad used chemical weapons was made multiple times; it makes no difference whether such a red line resulted from well-thought policy and planning or were ad-libbed in order to maintain an image of strength and justice. Failure to follow through on such a promise would prove permanently damaging to our reputation and power of deterrence.
But here the positives of the American response to Syria end. The president’s new moves are nothing more than a blatant attempt to seek political coverage and dither further on the issue of an appropriate military response. Looking first on the question of timing, the president said that the timeframe for a response was unrestrained. According to him, he has been assured that an attack can occur months from now and still carry the same weight and effectiveness that an immediate response would hold. The reasoning behind this claim simply conflicts with the president’s point about credibility. A delaying of a response, in practice, gives Assad the incentive to use chemical weapons, at will, in the time until the attack occurs. Theoretically speaking, Assad will face no further costs for launching more attacks, thus giving him the ability, and incentive, to use such power. President Obama’s stated goal of preventing further attacks, and addressing our security concerns, becomes muddled and feckless. This, in turn, severely damages our reputation and deterrence ability. No longer will actions that work directly against our national interests be deterred for fear of an immediate and targeted military response. The initial dithering on the matter showed us ill prepared and weak, but this most recent point shows hesitance to use force in a situation where justice decidedly calls for it.
The delay is meant to accommodate a vote from Congress to support an attack. However, the president failed to call the members back from recess for a special session. If he truly saw this situation as one warranting an effective and powerful response, then the wait for Congress to return from break September 9 would be indefensible. This does not even consider the fact that he has had over a week to consult congressional leaders to argue in favor of attack and coordinate a vote.
What’s more, the deference to Congress elucidates the president’s self-centered political desires. The vote gives him a cover, a political “would-if-I-could.” Should he be granted congressional approval for attack, then his actions will be seen as politically legitimate. However, if Congress votes against action, then the president could easily blame the negative ramifications on their trepidation towards attacking. In short, President Obama has found a way to shift the onus of an attack and the liabilities therewith onto Congress, thus inoculating himself from any potential political damage. (The president, however, would be wise to recall that President Bush sought Congress’ approval for military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan, received it both times, and was summarily blamed for the failures and shortcomings of both wars.) In this endeavor the president believes he has killed two birds with one stone: He can appear with strength and resolve while still deflecting criticism of both action and inaction toward Capitol Hill.
The president claimed in his speech that this search for congressional approval is due to the United States being “the oldest constitutional democracy in the world,” one with a set standard of governance and rule of law. Such a claim is disingenuous and hollow. If he truly cared about following the appropriate procedure in seeking congressional approval, then he would have gone directly to Congress from the onset of this crisis. Most reports show that the president only decided to go to Congress this Saturday and surprised advisors with his announcement. Instead, he circumvented the legislature in favor of a unilateral and executive-centered approach. Likewise, the president, less than a minute after referencing this country’s rich constitutional tradition, stated that he believed he had the authority to launch an attack without consulting Congress. Such a claim directly contradicts his stated reason for going to Congress in the first pace. In it is revealed the president’s true view: that the Constitution provides not a strict set of rules by which to govern the country, but an undefined set of traditions and precedents that represent an outmoded and arbitrarily restrained rubric for governance. One cannot use the notion that the Constitution is a document that standardizes the decision-making procedure as a justification for pursuing greater consensus, while, at the same time, stating that the presidency possesses the authority to ignore it and make decisions unilaterally. Those two sentiments simply do not match up.
The issue of congressional approval is difficult one to settle. On the one hand, the War Powers Resolution allows for the president to send the military on short campaigns, of at most 60 days, without congressional approval. It would only be after 60 days when the president would be forced to seek Congress’s approval to continue the campaign. On the other hand, this engagement presents the United States with a difficult and potentially dangerous predicament that could lead to further hostilities in the region. Failure to seek a bipartisan congressional consensus for attack could leave many on both sides angered with the lack of consultation. It is also fair to note in this discussion that the electorate and country, as a whole, is fairly war weary after more than a decade of conflict and would like to see the country take a diminishing military role, at least for the near future. Such a political dynamic is important to note in that in a republic, such as ours, popular sentiment cannot be wholly ignored on many matters, even when it would seem to go against the recommended course of action. Given this, it would seem wise for the president to go to Congress for approval or, at the very least, keep them abreast of the situation. His error was to argue for an attack out of a desire to maintain political credibility, not justice or the preservation of a reasonable international order.
This to say nothing of the major issues that the actual plan of attack presents. What purpose or strategic advantage does an attack “limited in scope” actually possess in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons later and restraining his power? The idea that we would publicly state that our intention is not regime change and that our attacks will be extremely confined is perplexing and harmful. Making such a statement ruined any hope we could have had to effect actual change and establish a strong precedent. The current limits imposed bring into question whether these attacks are useful or even necessary. The argument has already been put forth as to why a strong and effective response is necessary, but this plan of attack is nothing close to what is needed to truly address the issues the United States faces in the region.
During his speech on Saturday, the president exposed himself as a politically-driven and dangerously weak commander-in-chief. His demands, while on face value prudent and understandable, upon closer inspection are enigmatic and riddled with many errors and lapses in judgment. These new demands will likely only further weaken our image abroad and damage our enforcement capabilities, which were already hampered by the administration’s initially weak response to the attack. With this undisciplined behavior and moral morass, the message being sent to our enemies is a simple but damaging one: mess with us, and we will talk about doing something about it… at some point in the future.
Jonathan Godoy is a third year in the College majoring in Political Science.