Saturday, August 31, 2013

Comments on Pres. Obama's decision to let Congress have its say over Syria

President Obama’s announcement Saturday to allow Congress to debate and vote on military action in Syria was probably dictated by a variety of practical considerations.  It may have come as a surprise, but looking back on the events of the week, it probably made sense.
It was clear that he did not get the international backing , a coalition of the willing he had hoped. The vote opposing military action  in the British parliament was very instructive . His liberal wing was not enthusiastic or supportive.  The body of evidence that could have been convincing was not presented publicly until Friday and judgment calls and policy decisions on both sides of the Atlantic were being made without knowing the full facts or the proof presented either publicly declassified or the more secretive information .  The UN inspectors’ report would not be ready for over a week, though the administration had already dismissed what they found as simply verifying that chemical weapons had been used but not by whom.  As expected, a UN resolution was a dead end thanks to Russia’s committed support of Assad.     The parameters, the purpose of any strike were still ill defined in the minds of many  in spite of powerful statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and the President’s Rose Garden press conference Saturday.
 The G20 meeting in Russia, September 5, 6,  was looming and the timing was getting very close.  Perhaps that conference in St. Petersburg would also give Pres. Putin and Pres. Obama a chance to come to some agreement on a UN resolution  since they both seem to come to the same conclusion that replacing Assad would result in  giving  more strength to Russia’s and the US’  common enemy…Al Qaeda and its clones and affiliates. That agreement  is a distant hope, but we can dream, can’t we.
Polls were showing that the American people wanted Congress to check in and give their seal of approval to any military action, and in fact  a Sen. Obama had already long ago advocated that Congress be consulted before launching military action. Many in the military had already expressed their misgivings, but the President is their Commander in Chief and good soldiers have always done as asked.  Remaining is the question  if Congress did vote against involvement or set unreasonable conditions, would Obama ignore them, since he made it clear he was committed to a military strike. He does have 60 days to launch a military attack without Congressional approval, though there are some restrictions  based upon the degree of  threat to national security.
There are some domestic political advantages to Democrats for throwing the ball to Congress. The Pres. needs time to bring along his own party and he needs time to make his case to the American people.  It is clear he has not yet  done so, given the polling  results.   There are many in Congress who do not want their vote on the record, especially those Republicans who are traditional foreign policy hawks  with primary races in districts where Tea Party and Libertarians have expressed disapproval of intervention, even limited.  While the Democrats are somewhat divided, the Republicans have a very large gap between the hawks of a Sen.  McCain and the isolationists.  That same divide between traditional pro business Republicans and upstart Teapartiers exists in other issues on social and economic issues  along the same lines.  Adding a fundamental disagreement over Syria to the existing divisions might further weaken Republicans and make it easier for the Democrats to hold onto their seats in 2014.  
What will be interesting is to see whether House Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi, already announced in favor of limited strikes in Syria, can convince her Congressional  caucus in the House to go along with the President. However, first assessments by knowledgeable pundits indicate the Senate may back the President and return to Washington before the summer break  and the House has a chance to debate and vote. 
Whether or not our national interest is at stake will also be a  case Pres. Obama has yet to make convincingly to the public.  I for one do buy the argument that if we, or someone does not put a foot down on the use of chemical weapons now, we will have given the green light for others to use them in the future because they no longer fear repercussions.  Other bad actors could indeed believe they could use nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, too, with impunity and that would make this world much more dangerous.  This is a sophisticated argument to make to an electorate which is not very attuned to the chess game of international power players.
What our European allies ought to be doing now is to charge Assad with  war crimes for using chemical weapons and to  bring the case before the court in the  Hague or other internationally recognized tribunals.  That would at least get the ball rolling on condemning such actions with repercussions, much as it has done in the case of the Bosnian Serbs and the Khmer Rouge.
Whatever action is approved should be attached to an ultimate goal.  If not regime change, then perhaps negotiations along the line of the Dayton Accord that ended the bloodshed in the Bosnia conflict might be the best outcome. The least impressive outcome would be to degrade Assad’s delivery systems and air power and to leave it at that,  nothing more. Depending upon how extensive this action may be, the intended or unintended consequences could be either to level the playing field enough for both sides to want to  seek negotiation  or to  tilt the civil war in the direction of the rebels, an outcome  that may be even worse than an Assad dictatorship. We must be very careful what we wish.
 The way it looks at this time with many reluctant to get involved, Assad thinking he is off the hook, and even those moderate rebels in Syria who had hope they would get Western assistance be extremely disappointed,  that goal does not appear to have a prayer in hades.

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