Peter Wehner, writing at Commentary, sized up the last few days’ events perfectly where Barack Obama, Congress and Syria are concerned…
This latest volte-face by the president is evidence of a man who is completely overmatched by events, weak and confused, and deeply ambivalent about using force. Yet he’s also desperate to get out of the corner he painted himself into by declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute a “red line.” As a result he’s gone all Hamlet on us. Not surprisingly, Obama’s actions are being mocked by America’s enemies and sowing doubt among our allies. (Read this New York Timesstory for more.)
What explains this debacle? It’s impossible for us to know all the reasons, but one explanation appears to be a CYA operation.
According to Politico, “At the very least, Obama clearly wants lawmakers to co-own a decision that he can’t back away from after having declared last year that Assad would cross a ‘red line’ if he used chemical weapons against his own people.” And theWashington Postreports:
Obama’s proposal to invite Congress dominated the Friday discussion in the Oval Office. He had consulted almost no one about his idea. In the end, the president made clear he wanted Congress to share in the responsibility for what happens in Syria. As one aide put it, “We don’t want them to have their cake and eat it, too.”
Get it? The president of the United States is preparing in advance to shift the blame if his strike on Syria proves to be unpopular and ineffective. He’s furious about the box he’s placed himself in, he hates the ridicule he’s (rightly) incurring, but he doesn’t see any way out.
That’s substantially correct, but the guess here is it’s more than that.
Because what Obama learned with his prior involvement in the civil war in Libya was that if your foreign policy adventure leads to dead American bodies and a worsening of the situation you’re insinuating yourself into, you’d better be able to blame it on somebody.
But for a completely ineffective and hapless Romney campaign where Benghazi was concerned, and the GOP nominee’s failure to capitalize on the Obama policy, Libya could well have cost the president this current term. He completely owned the Libyan disaster, and he’s extremely fortunate that everything involved in his policy there hasn’t come into the public light.
But Obama isn’t the only one who learned from Libya. The American people and even much of the international community has learned as well. And those lessons don’t point to support for the Syrian rebels.
Libya showed that a lousy Arab dictator who is no friend to the United States and might even have a smattering of American blood on his hands is not the threat to our interests that an Al Qaeda government or functional control can be. And it’s without question that the rebels in Syria, should they succeed in deposing that country’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, would either bring Al Qaeda in control of the country or establish Syria as a safe haven for them.
Either way, we’ll be helping the same people who took down the Twin Towers on 9-11, and the last time we did that we paved the way for a dead ambassador and three other American heroes.
This is not unknown to anyone. And that’s why there is scant support to be found anywhere outside the craniums of Lindsey Graham and John McCain for American involvement in Syria.
But Obama, for whatever reason, believes he needs to bomb somebody. And he’s decided that making Congress vote on the question works for him.
Four possibilities are at hand with a vote for congressional authorization.
First, Obama can seek congressional authorization to bomb Syria, get it, and go in. If he does, then he wins regardless. If the bombing does something valuable on the ground there, then he has an actual foreign-policy success to point to. But if not, then he can say that the Republicans were with him all the way.
Second, Congress can authorize action and Obama declines. This would, of course, be an indication of a completely feckless and asinine foreign policy – don’t ask Congress for permission to start a war if you don’t intend to prosecute one. But as a matter of politics it could be a devastating blow to the Republicans – the idea of bombing Syria is not popular with any segment of the public, and this would be a way for Obama to side with the public against the Republican Party. That would give the Democrats an issue with which to hammer away at Republicans in advance of the 2014 elections, and given the ubiquitous media-whoring of the most irresponsible hawks in the party – namely, Graham, McCain and Peter King (and as of this morning, John Boehner, who is now flapping his gums for bombing) – the Obama apparatus and the DNC could spend the next year or so painting Republicans as warmongers and too willing to plunge us into another Iraq.
If that sounds far-fetched, just go back through the last three years and see how often Obama has worked to position Republicans unfavorably.
The third possibility is that Congress votes no and Obama goes in anyway. He’s let it out that he thinks he can and should do this very thing, and in the event some positive eventuality might come from such a strike Obama gets all the credit for it. But as that is decidedly unlikely, what’s more in play is that going in will be seen as a mistake – and the mistake will be all Obama’s.
And the fourth possibility is that Congress says no and Obama doesn’t go in. This way Obama can blame Congress for whatever humanitarian consequences may come from Syria’s continued plight, but given that the public doesn’t want a strike everyone can claim to be responsive to the public. Except that Obama’s friends in the media can play up the intra-GOP strife between the McCain/Graham wing of the party (which consists basically of McCain and Graham and few others) and the “crazy Ron Paul crowd” like Justin Amash and Rand Paul.
Politically, there is a bit less risk involved in voting for intervention in Syria. Obviously, politics shouldn’t be the guiding force behind the decision. But on the other hand we’ve been talking about this issue for well more than a month and there is still no real argument being made why it’s in American interests to go into Syria – the only argument which continues to be repeated is a political argument, namely that because Assad used chemical weapons we have to do something because otherwise it looks like “appeasement” and it would encourage others to use them. So if politics and image for international consumption are why we ought to go in, it’s far less obnoxious to consider domestic politics as a reason not to.
Remember – any real chance to have intervened in the Syrian civil war in service to American interests, as in backing a revolutionary faction which could bring a pro-American government into power, burned up long ago thanks to dithering by this president in advance of his re-election effort. So this is all politics – either Assad stays in power for a time and the Russians and Iranians have a victory, or Assad falls and the likely winner of the resulting civil war will be Al Qaeda or at least Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood in orientation and certainly anti-American, and so from a policy standpoint we’re staring into the abyss in Syria.
Therefore, the key is to try not to fall into the abyss.
Writing at National Review, Michael Walsh offers some pretty good advice for the Republicans in Congress…
The idea is that, no matter what Congress does, Obama can blame it for the adverse results of anything he does (and there will be adverse results) and then campaign against obstructionist Republicans to accomplish the only strategic goal that matters to Democrats: recapturing the House and holding the Senate in 2014. And then, in the final two years of the administration, “fundamental transformation” will be unstoppable.
Damned if they do, damned if they don’t — that’s the cynical calculation coming out of the White House and its No-Rush-to-War president. Obama’s very lack of urgency speaks to the symbolic nature of his proposed military action. And his out clause — that he won’t necessarily be bound by Congress, no matter what it says — only reinforces the notion that this is simply a political ploy designed to put his real enemies — conservatives — on the spot. He’s preparing an enfilade — so, of course, McCain and Co. will walk right into it.
Unless Congress just says no. If Obama’s going to attack Syria — a “country” that’s done nothing to us — then why rubber-stamp his decision? Better to vote it down, bipartisanly and decisively, and let the president own it…
John Yoo has argued persuasively here on NRO that any president has the power to go to war on his own toot. Since Congress has no power constrain the decision-making process, it should go on record and then, citing the Constitution, step back and let the world’s most bellicose Nobel Peace Prize recipient do what he’s going to do anyway. For once,polls are running in favor of the “isolationists” — who are better characterized as “realists.” Which naturally means the McCain-led Republicans will get on the wrong side of the American people yet again.
Still, the voters are watching, and they’ll know whose neck to hang the Syrian intervention around when it proves useless or, more likely, disastrous. And maybe next time they’ll think more carefully about the man with whom they entrust the role of commander-in-chief.
Since Obama created this mess and he’s now demanding the Republicans join him in it, the response should be to tell him to pound sand. Obama has given the GOP and the segment of the population which didn’t vote for him absolutely zero reason to bail him out for unpopular decisions he wants to make; it’s time he bore the consequences of it. There is no favor for America’s foreign policy to be found in any event.