Once United Nations weapons inspectors safely crossed the Syrian border into Lebanon with soil and tissue samples to confirm Bashar al-Assad’s use of Sarin nerve gas, all eyes were on President Barack Obama, anticipating air strikes. Warned by U.N. members to take more time to process the results of weapons inspectors, Obama played a different hand, putting the onus of any U.S. military action back on Congress. Pushed into military action by ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama responded to Congressional calls for more consultation and debate. Obama remembers all-too-well the when the Congress authorized Oct. 16, 2002 former President George W. Bush to use force to deal with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Bush made a strong case for war only 13 short months after Sept. 11.
Congress won’t be nearly as receptive to authorizing military action in Syria based on al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. While poison gas goes beyond the pale, Obama has the burden of convincing a skeptical Congress that Syria presents a clear-and-present danger to U.S. national security. Judging by his announced plan of “narrow” or “limited” military strikes designed to punish Syria but not hasten regime change, it’s also going to be difficult to convince Congress of the necessity of Cruise Missile strikes. At $1.2 million a pop, there’s not much tolerance for a throwaway missile strike. With all the advance warning given to al-Assad, he’s already moved strategic military assets—including chemical weapons—to more secure locations. Handing the decision to Congress reflects Obama’s ambivalence of making good on his promise to al-Assad of crossing his “red line.”
Obama’s biggest advocate for military strikes against al-Assad won’t buy a limited approach that does nothing to cripple Syria’s war-making machine. “The president apparently wants to have a kind of cosmetic strike, launch a few missiles and then say, ‘Well, we responded,’” McCain told NBC’s “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, having big problems with Obama’s plan. McCain’s point is that if you’re going to launch Cruise Missiles you’d better have a clear objective, other than just sending “a shot across the bow.” Once Cruise Missiles fly, the president exposes the U.S. military to a variety of unknown threats, including land and sea attacks from Syria or one of its dubious allies like Iran. “This is the same president that, two years ago, said Bashar al-Assad had to go. It’s the same president that said that there would be a red line if they used chemical weapons,” said McCain.
Deferring to Congress practically guarantees that no military action will take place unless the White House can make a more coherent case for military intervention. Twelve years removed from Sept. 11, Congress and the country have grown more jaded of U.S. foreign incursions. Obama, himself, has resisted involvement in Syria’s civil war, precisely because so many unsavory factions seek to topple al-Assad. When Barack reluctantly decided June 14 to arm the Free Syrian Army, he antagonized Russian President Vladimir Putin—al-Assad’s most reliable ally—to the point he granted asylum to 30-year-old National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Obama expressed his “disappointment” over Putin’s decision, canceling an upcoming summit with Putin before the G20 economic conference Sept. 5 in St. Petersburg. U.S.-Russian relations hit the lowest point since the Cold War.
When Congress picks up the debate Sept. 9, it’s not likely to go anywhere unless backers can make a more coherent national security argument. While it’s true that al-Assad attacked rebel positions with chemical weapons in East Damscus, it doesn’t automatically follow that it threatens U.S. national security. As McCain sharpens the debate the well of the Senate, it’s going to be clear that a throwaway missile attack weakens U.S. national security. Only a focused mission designed to topple al-Assad makes any sense. Using U.S. military assets to send “a shot across the bow” exposes the American public and armed services to more threats. Arguing that Cruise Missiles need to be fired to send al-Assad a message about chemical weapons won’t fly in Congress—and nor should it. Congress won’t approve some half-baked plan to employ the military to send messaged to foreign powers.
Punting to Congress on Syria, Obama gives himself political cover to blame the Republican-controlled House for nixing his plan for “narrow” military options. By the time Congress gets around to debating military action, U.N. inspectors should be at least leaking their findings about chemical weapons use. Whatever the U.N.’s findings, chemical weapons use doesn’t justify military action unless Obama can establish a “clear-and-present” danger to U.S. national security. While Obama’s plan seems half-baked, Congress isn’t likely to buy McCain’s plan to bomb Syrian military assets and set up a no-fly zone in the country. Neither Obama’s toe-in-the-water approach nor McCain swan dive into a new war will go over in Congress, making military action less likely. Whether each side of the aisle admits it or not, the country is too jaded to wade into another Mideast war.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.