Syria: don’t just do something, stand there!
5 Sep 2013|

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of the United States Congress.President Obama’s bizarre choice to give Congress a right to veto a strike on Syria effectively confirms lame-duck status on the rest of his Presidency. He has around 1200 days left in office, a long time for a President whose domestic agenda has been blunted by Congress and who seems unwilling to act decisively on foreign policy.

As Dana Allin and Steven Simon observe in a IISS blog post, there’s no legislative requirement for the President to take a proposal for a military strike to Congress. The Congressional War Powers resolution of 1973 asks the President to consult with Congress ‘in every possible instance’ before committing military forces, but the resolution’s focus is on large-scale deployments of troops. The reality is that Presidents have the executive authority to decide when and where America can use military force—just as Obama did in the strike on Bin Laden. It’s a major backward step for Obama to volunteer this concession to Congress and one that future Presidents will say shouldn’t be taken as a precedent to limit their executive authority.

Obama’s 31 August statement—described by White House spin doctors as ‘the President’s decision on Syria’—reveals the deep confusion in US policy thinking following the Syrian chemical weapons attack. Obama says ‘I have decided that the United States should take military action … Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose’. The case for the strike is based on what Obama claims is detailed and accurate intelligence about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons; the threat this poses to America’s friends and partners in the region, and the unacceptability of using weapons of mass destruction. Obama then says: ‘I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization’ and it’s at this point in the statement that he says he’ll take the matter to Congress:

But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.

So national interest, moral outrage and regional stability can all take a back seat for a couple of weeks while Congress decides if it will drop its deep-seated opposition to Obama and let the President exercise his executive authority. It’s as though Obama wants Congress to stop a strike. The Senate may approve the military action, but the House of Representatives has been stridently anti-Obama and its support can’t be taken for granted.

Why Obama took this approach isn’t adequately justified by his parsing of the Gettysburg address. One explanation is that he realises a limited strike won’t achieve a useful strategic purpose and he’s looking for Congress to share responsibility for a pointless military act. The administration has made it clear that any strike will be highly limited. Defense Secretary Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

The President has made clear that our military objectives in Syria would be to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons. … In defining our military objectives, we have made clear that we are not seeking to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria through direct military force. Instead we are contemplating actions that are tailored to respond to the use of chemical weapons.

In effect, Obama’s telling Assad that the US won’t use military power to unseat him, and they’ve also given the regime several weeks in which to disperse their chemical weapons stocks. Does anyone think that the Syrians will make it easy for the US to hit these weapons without severely complicating their targeting? A US strike is one of the few things that might help bolster regional support for Assad—a line the regime’s been assiduously running.

Perhaps the strongest case for a US strike is simply to strengthen Obama’s credibility: he said there’d be consequences if Assad used chemical weapons, so something needs to happen. As Chuck Hagel said to the Foreign Relations Committee: ‘The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments.’ It’s a pity that this currency has been devalued to such a degree by American indecision.

For Australia, Syria remains a strategic issue on which we have little value to add outside of our brief chairing of the United Nations’ Security Council during September. Tony Abbott’s characterisation of the Syrian conflict has been criticised as overly simplistic. He told the ABC Insiders program:

We’ve got a civil war going on in that benighted country between two pretty unsavoury sides. It’s not goodies versus baddies, it’s baddies versus baddies. And that is why it is very important that we don’t make a very difficult situation worse.

In fact, this is accurate, and for once in Australian politics a clear explanation of a complex international dilemma. The ‘baddies versus baddies’ line helps explain why President Obama finds it so difficult to set a decisive strategic response. In Australia there’s a broad bipartisan approach to steer clear of military involvement in any action against Syria. We should be thankful for that.

Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.