The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
Starting this week, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.
What you need to know for Wednesday 9/18:
The Moscow Times: Putin’s New York Times Blunder - Rep. Buck McKeon responds to Russian President Putin.
The Washington Post: NSA Spying Scandal Spoils Dinner at the White House for Brazil’s President
The American Conservative: Empire’s Aftermath - “What we must learn from colonialism’s collapse and unruly wake, as taught by Michael Burleigh’s Small Wars, Far Away Places”
Stephen M. Walt: Iran Is the Real Prize for Obama's Foreign Policy
Foreign Affairs: Tunisia's Lessons for the Middle East
Twelve years ago today, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, President Bush signed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) into law. This document, passed with virtually unanimous support in both houses of Congress, has provided the primary legal basis for the wide-ranging war on terror that the United States has waged. Its main clause authorizes the president
to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Since its passage, this law has underpinned the war in Afghanistan, the practice of indefinite detention, and the campaign of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Congress and the courts have interpreted the law as applying to authorize force against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their “associated forces,” although that phrase itself does not appear in the text of the AUMF.
Now, with the American combat mission in Afghanistan scheduled to wind down at the end of next year, there is a growing chorus of voices calling for the AUMF to be narrowed or even repealed outright along with it. In March, the New York Times editorial page called for the AUMF to be repealed effective upon the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Several months later, Representative Adam Schiff introduced legislation that would have done exactly that. Saying that the 2001 law “now poorly defines those who pose a threat to our country,” Schiff argued that Congress should cut off funding for implementing the AUMF after 2014 and work with the White House to determine what authorities, if any, the administration would need after that date. Schiff’s amendment failed, but it did gain 185 “yes” votes in the House, 155 of them from Democrats.
Even President Obama has expressed at least vocal support for further circumscribing the AUMF. In his May speech at the National Defense University, the president said, “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” Thus far, however, the Obama administration has evinced little to no apparent interest in actually pursuing this course.
The main problem regarding the AUMF right now is well understood: that even as the U.S. government apparently has been largely successful in crippling the original “core” Al Qaeda network in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there has been a concurrent rise of terrorist organizations in other countries whose operational connections to core Al Qaeda are tenuous or unclear. In some cases, most notably Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose links to core Al Qaeda are more robust and which has directly targeted the United States, applying the AUMF is not very controversial. But other cases are far less clear-cut. The Washington Post reported in March that the government was “weighing whether the law can be stretched to cover what one former official called ‘associates of associates.’” These are groups such as Al Nusra Front in Syria that may embrace parts of Al Qaeda’s agenda but have no meaningful connections to its leadership. The result is that there is an enormous deal of confusion over just how far the AUMF reaches.
This confusion was evident in May at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in which the Defense Department officials testifying appeared to put forward an extremely broad interpretation of the AUMF. When asked by Senator John McCain if the AUMF could “be read to authorize lethal force against al Qaeda’s associated forces in additional countries where they are now present, such as Somalia, Libya, and Syria,” one witness said, “On the domestic law side, yes.” Another witness answered in the affirmative when asked if, under the AUMF, the president had the authority “to put boots on the ground in the Congo.” As Jack Goldsmith, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote in recapping the hearing, it was clear that Congress “has no idea how DOD is interpreting the AUMF.” The episode put on display all of the dangers that the AUMF’s critics had warned of—namely, that the law had become the basis for a boundless war with no geographical or temporal limitations, and that it represented an abdication on the part of Congress regarding the legislative branch’s role in issues of war and peace.
What seems clear is that the AUMF is being stretched to its breaking point. As Goldsmith and three other legal scholars—Robert Chesney, Matthew Waxman and Benjamin Wittes—write in a Hoover Institution report, this trend is likely to continue until “even strained interpretations of the AUMF will not be possible.” At that point, the government will be left either holding onto an AUMF that will be seen as increasingly illegitimate, relying on the president’s Article II powers as commander in chief, or ending its targeted-killing campaign entirely (something it is difficult to imagine any administration of either party doing in the immediate future). None of these are appealing options.
Thus, the Hoover report makes the case for a new legal framework to replace the AUMF. It offers a menu of options for what such an authorization might look like. One would be for Congress to specify the “general criteria” that organizations would have to meet in order to be targeted with lethal force. It might, for example, authorize force against “any group or person that has committed a belligerent act against the U.S. or imminently threatens to do so.” The executive branch would then be empowered to identify the organizations that meet this standard. It would regularly report to Congress on what those groups are, the intelligence that forms the basis for listing them and the military actions it is taking to combat the threats.
Another, narrower option that the report describes would be for Congress to do this listing itself, and “authorize the president to use force against specified terrorist groups and/or in specified countries or geographic areas.” The authors warn that Congress might not be able to act quickly enough to meet rapidly evolving threats, and caution that “Congress must under this approach stay engaged politically and legally as threats evolve and emerge; it must debate and approve any significant expansions of the conflict.” But this is precisely what Congress is supposed to be doing. Requiring our legislative branch to reassume the role that it has largely abandoned in the past decade when it comes to matters of war and peace would be a feature of any new authorization, not a bug.
In either of the two above scenarios, Chesney, Goldsmith, Waxman and Wittes recommend that the new AUMF be set to expire after a defined amount of time. In their words, “The authorization should be subject to legislative review and renewal (say, every two years), with a default sunset if Congress does not affirmatively renew the granted authority.” This would be a welcome forcing mechanism to help try to ensure that a replacement AUMF does not simply become the basis for a permanent war that drifts on autopilot, without any congressional debate over whether and to what extent it ought to continue.
One underreported fact in all of this is that the list of organizations that the U.S. government considers itself to be at war with is actually classified. The rationale for this, according to a Pentagon spokesman, is that “because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States,” the government “cannot afford to inflate these organizations” by formally listing them. This is the reductio ad absurdum of government secrecy: we can’t tell you who we’re at war with because telling our enemies that we’re at war with them would make them more dangerous. The executive branch could—and should—declassify this list even in the absence of a replacement AUMF. But one of the side benefits of the process of drafting and approving a new one is that it would force this list, along with the debate about who really belongs on it, out into the public eye.
Writing a narrower AUMF that puts real geographical and temporal restrictions on the war on terror, while still preserving the executive branch’s authority to use force against groups that genuinely threaten American security and basic interests, would be a decidedly positive step. As President Obama said in his NDU speech, “In the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.” After twelve years of war, it is time for a new legal framework that reflects this reality.
Starting this week, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.
What you need to know for Tuesday 9/17:
The Diplomat’s Naval Diplomat Blog: The Austere Path to Naval Supremacy - “A new article outlines how the US can regain and extend its edge in sea combat, and do so on the cheap.”
Foreign Policy: Day of Reckoning - “The vultures are circling over Argentina's stricken economy. Can it hold off disaster until the next election?
New York Times: Veteran Diplomat Fond of Cigars, Whiskey and Outfoxing U.S. - “Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who pushed for the Syria chemical arms pact, has spent a career trying to keep the United States in check.”
American Conservative: How to Cut the ‘Syrian Knot’ - “Why settle for bombing one side when you can bomb both?”
RealClearDefense: Never a Fair Fight: Defense Cuts Pose Threat to Troops
The Interpreter: Syria: How About A Little Love For the Russians? - “But let's be clear: none of this would have been possible without the Russians. What both schools of commentary should acknowledge is that America owes a debt to Moscow in this matter.”
Almost every major political figure has a social-media presence today. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is an Instagram addict, as is Syria’s first family. Hugo Chavez was a prolific tweeter, and Fidel Castro blogs occasionally. Iowa senator Chuck Grassley live-tweets University of Northern Iowa Panthers women’s volleyball matches. Yet nobody’s quite as strange as Iran’s Supreme Tweeter, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He’s on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, even though the last two have been blocked in Iran. And while all three accounts are almost certainly managed by his office rather than the Rahbar himself, they still have the remarkably ad hoc and disorganized feel you’d expect from a seventy-four-year-old cleric learning the digital ropes. He uses hashtags poorly. He offers opinions almost at random, dredging up lines from decades-old speeches without explaining why they bear relevance to his audience today. He’s translated into imperfect English, and abbreviates words like a teenager—“Do ur scientific works in a way that Westerners learn #Farsi 2 read ur articles.Farsi has such capacity that can Xpress most subtle sciences”. And like Grassley, he enjoys volleyball. The Ayatollah begs to be hipper.
Yet in the last few days, the Ayatollah’s social-media team has mounted something like a PR campaign, with the apparent goal of showing the world that Khamenei is no medieval scold, but a modern Renaissance man, a voracious reader and a real intellectual. And so there have been two bursts, on multiple platforms, of posts about the Leader’s love for literature. He’d like you to know that he favors novels over nonfiction—“The Historical narrative [...] can show photos of a city taken from a 10 thousand feet altitude. On the other hand, in an artistic narrative you can well imagine that you have got into a city.” And he’d like you to know that he’s read a lot of them, and he names a handful as proof—“I have read plenty of novels that relate to the events of different centuries. I have also read some very old novels. For instance I have read the Divine Comedy, Amir Arsalan, One Thousand and One Nights.” He doesn’t like all novels, of course—“some #novels r mere fantasy&have no message&shouldn’t be read,” but he wants to remind you that nobody stops him from reading them anyway—“Although I’ve also read those novels since no 1 has ever told what to read”. He also would like to to know when he reads them—on the bus and in other spare moments. He brags that this has enabled him to read “maybe hundreds of books.” And he knows “many ppl who’ve done the same.”
Yet it’s not enough for you to know what a great mind Khamenei is—he wants you to emulate him. “We should habituate ourselves&our #children 2read #books;eg 2read books when they want 2go 2bed or hours of Fridays & summer #holidays.” “Once they get home, all working ppl should spend at least half an hour on reading;lots of works can be read during these 30min of free times”. And this is how all of Khamenei’s hobbies and habits are. They aim to humanize him, to show his personality, but without failing to show him as great. He reads like you, yes, but he reads more, he reads it with more taste, and he reads it with more discipline. Perhaps next week he’ll tell us of his great humility.
The irony in Khamenei’s self-promotion is deep. For while “no 1 has ever told [him] what to read,” his regime tells his subjects what to read. The internet is heavily and meticulously censored. Books are often banned—including some of the classics. And Iran’s greatest contribution to world culture, its poetry, faces censorship. And so it should be no surprise that the leader of a country with a deep literary culture and a deep sense of nationalism still would pick a foreign novel—Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which he brands “a miracle in the world of novel writing”—as his favorite. Khamenei has seen to it that many great Persian novels—like Sadegh Hedayat’s mesmerizing The Blind Owl—are kept off the presses. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rowhani, has dropped hints about easing controls, and Twitter and Facebook were partially unblocked yesterday. But until then, Iranian readers face another year of chains on the galleys with Jean Valjean and Ali Khamenei.
It’s time for a reality check. Russia’s proposed deal for Syria to abandon its chemical weapons arsenal is hardly, in President Obama’s words, a “significant breakthrough.” The president said last week that the initiative could avert American strikes on Syria “if it’s real.” But it isn’t. Rather, the Russian plan will not work—and Obama knows it. Yet he and his administration have welcomed this initiative. Why?
A senior State Department official recently said that any proposed deal must be “swift”, “real”, and “verifiable.” The administration has also declared that it must be “comprehensive” and “enforceable.” For many reasons, it can be none of these things.
The deal won’t be swift. As Dina Esfandiari has pointed out, even if Assad were to fully declare all of his chemical weapons stockpiles—a big if—it is unlikely that this could be done in the seven-day timeframe proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who rejected Assad’s argument that Syria should have 30 days to do so. Destroying a chemical arsenal as large as Assad’s, estimated by some to be the world’s largest, “doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it is more realistic to talk in years than in months.”
The plan won’t be enforceable, because Russia has refused to agree to any deal that is. Although the U.S., Britain, and France concur that any chemical inspection regime for Syria must be legally binding and backed by the authorization to use force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in response to Syrian noncompliance, Russia has already objected to a draft Security Council resolution to this effect. So administration officials changed their tune on Friday, saying that Obama would accept a UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) not backed by the threat of force.
Although Russia and the U.S. have since agreed to file a UNSCR under Chapter VII, any violations warranting punishment would be referred back to the Security Council, where Russia could block the use of force. As Secretary Kerry noted, “Use of force is clearly one of the options that may or may not be available to the Security Council" (italics mine). But even with Chapter VII authority, the middling American and international reactions to the regime’s previous alleged instances of chemical weapons use—to the extent that there has been any reaction—would hardly convince Assad that violation of the deal would be inescapably met with force.
No wonder Assad immediately embraced the plan. What’s more, he is attempting to milk it for all it’s worth. Russian President Vladimir Putin said a deal could work only if the U.S. and its relevant allies “tell us they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.” Apparently this is insufficient for Assad, who said in an interview on Thursday that Syria won’t relinquish its chemical weapons unless the U.S. stops arming the rebels, which the CIA began doing in recent weeks, according to Syrian figures and American officials.
A deal along the lines of the Russian proposal will also not be comprehensive, verifiable, or real, owing to the fact that the Assad regime and opposition forces each control territory in Syria, and many areas are hotly contested. Although a CRS report released on Thursday states that “U.S. officials have expressed confidence that chemical weapons stocks in Syria are secured by the Asad regime”, on-the-ground inspection will be necessary to verify this; that is, they are needed if the goal of the plan is to verifiably rid Syria of chemical weapons—as opposed to merely depriving the Syrian government of them.
That some element(s) of the opposition might possess chemical weapons is not beyond the realm of possibility. In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, suggested in an interview that the rebels had used sarin gas, a claim quickly rejected by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Gwyn Winfield, the editorial director of CBRNe World, argues that the rebels possess the experience and perhaps also the delivery capability to launch a chemical attack, and that it is possible that the rebels may "have overrun an arms dump which had some of the [chemical] agent" or that a government "defector brought a limited amount with him." On Friday, Turkish prosecutors alleged that Syrian rebel groups were seeking materials to produce sarin gas for the Al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade (both groups are unaffiliated with the FSA). From the first instance of alleged chemical weapons use, in Aleppo this March, to the most recent, in Ghoutta on August 21, the Syrian government has accused the rebels of using chemical weapons, as has Russia. Secretary Kerry did not contest Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's contention that there may be one or two chemical weapons sites in rebel-held locations.
Will inspectors even attempt to enter rebel-held territory? If chemical disarmament in Syria is to be truly comprehensive, then they must. (After all, Russia and Syria have charged that there are chemical weapons in these areas.) The plan envisions that both government and opposition forces with facilitate the inspectors’ work.
This puts the anti-Assad opposition in a serious bind. If a deal is reached and weapons inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are sent to Syria, will they be granted access to rebel-held areas, which comprise a majority of the country? What incentive will the rebels have to facilitate a verification effort that, if successful, would significantly reduce the likelihood of international armed intervention in their favor? None. But they also would not want to be seen as obstructing the inspectors’ efforts and, by extension, sabotaging diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflict. Whether or not the opposition concocts some reason to deny the inspectors access or obstruct their movement, they would have an incentive to do so.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition slammed the deal. The leader of the FSA, General Salim Idriss, already categorically rejected the plan. He insisted that there are “no chemical weapons on territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army,” but declared that his forces would “not hinder the work of UN monitors” if they sought to enter rebel-controlled territory. The Syrian National Coalition has also opposed it, saying in a statement that “Crimes against humanity cannot be absolved through political concessions, or surrendering the weapons used to commit them.”
Nonetheless, even if the rebels do not currently control chemical weapons, government-held territory where chemical weapons are based could fall into their hands before the weapons are removed or destroyed. As the recent CRS report notes, “The nature and recent course of the conflict in Syria suggests that rapid changes in control over critical military facilities may occur.” And if rebels do possess chemical weapons—now or prospectively—these weapons could subsequently fall into government hands if the regime makes territorial gains.
There are also many other reasons why a deal can’t work on an operational level, particularly because it would have to be implemented in an active warzone, but you get the point. So what could explain the administration’s embrace of it?
One potential explanation is that Obama really does want to strike Syria, and is attempting to build political support for doing so. By pursuing this diplomatic path—which he knows is likely to fail—the president can make the case that all peaceful options have been exhausted and that he is resorting to force as a last resort. This could help shift opinion at home, both in Congress and amongst the American people, as well as internationally, particularly among U.S. allies. It provides time to whip together much-needed votes on the Hill for authorizing force—if there ever is a vote.
Another possible explanation is that the administration doesn’t know what it will do next, and sees Russia’s proposal as a way to just buy time and determine its next move. It can be tempting to try to make sense of individual actions by situating them within the context of some larger, preconceived strategy. But we should keep in mind that there might be no overarching game plan here. Many aspects of how the administration has responded to the Syrian crisis so far are certainly consistent with this.
Or maybe Obama just wants a break. By pursuing Russia’s proposal, the administration has embarked down a road to nowhere. Yet it is difficult to know how long of a road it will be, or what might transpire along the way. It seems plausible that Obama hopes it will be quite long—prolonging the time during which the ball is not in his court—or that it will hit a dead-end upon reaching nowhere. Perhaps he wants both.
The president seems to want to wipe his hands of this whole mess. This was clearly illustrated when he told reporters on Thursday that he is shifting his focus to domestic priorities and leaving Secretary Kerry to handle Syria talks. "Even as we have been spending a lot of time on the Syria issue [...] it is still important to recognize that we've got a lot more stuff to do here," he said. Instead of Syria, the president will now focus on immigration, budget, and healthcare issues. Unlike with regards to Syria, he might make meaningful progress in these areas.
Image: Flickr/Victor1558. CC BY 2.0.
Starting today, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.
What you need to know for Monday 9/16:
Foreign Policy: John McCain Will Attack Vladimir Putin in the Pages of Pravda
Foreign Affairs: Open Source, Open World - “In the late 1960s, technology companies realized that they could sell the programs that they had been giving away with their computers. For software developers, though, that was a betrayal of their field's values: collaboration and sharing. Here's how the technologists have worked to bring those principles back.”
The Washington Post: U.N. Inspectors Find ‘Convincing’ Evidence of Chemical Attack Outside Damascus
The New York Times: South Korean Troops Kill Man Trying to Cross Border
The Washington Post: How the United States, Russia Arrived at Deal on Syria’s Chemical Weapons
The ongoing crisis involving Syria, its deadly civil war, the release of chemical weapons and the various responses to fast-moving events have dominated the headlines for the past several weeks.
With talk of an American strike to punish the Syrian regime to Russian proposals to solve the crisis and ongoing diplomacy, covering this issue from all perspectives has become our mission here at TNI.
We are proud to present some of our best material on the subject. By no means comprehensive, our goal is to showcase to our readers the various perspectives on the crisis, the long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and beyond.
Syria: World Sees Way Out in Lavrov Proposal By: Nikolas K. Gvosdev - Caught between Obama's interventionism and Putin's defense of national sovereignty über alles, an international solution is attractive to many.
Whether or not President Obama actually enforces his “red line” by attacking Syria, his decision to seek authority to act from Congress, after his administration already conveyed its intention to strike, has seriously undermined American credibility. The Syrian regime and its Iranian backers – and U.S. friends and foes alike – have surely taken note.
After the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons outside Damascus on August 21, the administration quickly created the impression that it would respond with force, and soon. Following the House of Commons’ vote against any British involvement in a potential military action against Syria, the administration announced its willingness to even take unilateral action against Syria.
These declarations to back U.S. threats with actual action seemed commendable at the time, although Obama’s irresolution has since become increasingly apparent.
On August 31, Obama bowed to calls from members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – that he obtain congressional approval before taking action in Syria. Any notions that the U.S. would intervene decisively, in a manner that might tilt today’s military balance in the rebels’ favor, were quickly dispelled: a limited, three-day strike employing only stand-off weaponry was envisioned. It would be, in the words of one U.S. official briefed on the administration’s options on Syria, "just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Nonetheless, mocked this proposed use of limited force certainly was.
In the face of these criticisms, reports on Thursday indicated that President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of targets in Syria. This order was prompted by intelligence reports suggesting that the Assad regime has been relocating troops and materiel as Congress debates authorizing action; common sense would also suggest that the regime would react in this way. Now, the regime has even more time to ready itself for the increasingly uncertain prospect of limited American intervention, because the Senate is expected to vote sometime this week and another one-week delay is expected on the House side.
Understandably, Obama punted to Congress in order to obtain political cover to act, given the significant potential for events and American involvement in Syria to go horribly awry and expand considerably in scope. An even more cynical reading is that Obama sought political cover to not act: if Congress refuses to authorize force, which is certainly possible – and, as matters stand now, likely – Obama does not intend to act, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Friday.
This uncertainty concerning whether Congress will “allow” the president to act makes his threats to potentially employ force elsewhere – against, say, Iran – difficult to take seriously. Setting the precedent of seeking congressional support once fosters the impression that Congress will have a say – and potentially a veto – next time. There is a qualitative difference between the president conveying that he will use force in response to a given contingency, and declaring that he might act if Congress grants him permission to do so.
The president declared in his 2010 State of the Union address that “as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise." This might have been taken seriously by Tehran then. Now, however, the Iranian regime would likely interpret Obama’s statement thusly: “…there should be significant doubt: they, too, might face growing consequences. That is a hope."
Israeli officials have argued that enforcing the president’s red line on Syria is essential to deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials have argued similarly that a ‘no’ vote from lawmakers would embolden Iran and North Korea. Yet this is a problem of the administration’s own making. This lame attempt to pass the buck to Congress is the antithesis of strong leadership.
Beyond obtaining political cover for action – or inaction – Obama certainly had many other reasons to go to Congress. An NBC News poll released on Friday found that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe the president should obtain congressional approval before acting in Syria. Only 36 percent of respondents in a new Gallup poll also released on Friday support using force in Syria, the lowest level of popular support for any U.S. military intervention in the last 20 years. If he had chosen to bypass Congress, these factors alone would provide ample ammunition for Obama’s critics on the right. Additionally, bypassing Congress would have also left him vulnerable to criticisms from the left for acting unilaterally, à la George W. Bush.
If Obama intended to seek congressional approval to act in Syria, he should have discreetly put out feelers on Capitol Hill well before publicly creating the impression that he planned to use force. If obtaining sufficient support seemed unlikely, then the administration could have still announced that it intended to act, and settled for cobbling together a bipartisan group of congressional supporters to provide at least a sheen of political support and cover. Opponents of using force could have been urged to dampen or mute their subsequent public criticisms of the administration’s actions in Syria.
It is not necessarily always a problem for this or any president to seek congressional authorization to use force. (Of course, presidents are often able to use force abroad independently of Congress, and have done so more often than not.) Indeed, the president should, when practicable, attempt to solicit congressional support for launching military action. Ideally, he or she should try to achieve an at least somewhat consultative and cooperative relationship with Congress when it comes to employing military force.
However, sound statesmanship, encompassing the imperative of maintaining a credible deterrent capacity, necessitates that the president should never create the impression that he is beholden to the whims of Congress in acting as commander-in-chief. Unfortunately, this administration has indicated that this is exactly the case.
It now appears that America’s entry into the Syrian civil war is inevitable. The crucial question now is not whether this is a good idea, but what our goals are and how our imminent use of force can best achieve them. The popular purpose proffered for the pending war is punishment—that is, to inflict harm on the Assad regime over its reprehensible chemical attack on its own people. On one hand, this is remarkably easy to achieve—the first measure of a successful punishment is that it is proportionate to the offense, so we merely need to inflict as much harm on Assad as we think is appropriate, and we have succeeded. On the other hand, punishment is a highly unusual goal for a war. Morally, it is unusual (and risky) that we are assuming the power to judge and mete out punishments to other states—this power is normally exercised by a sovereign authority, and it is an empirical fact that we do not exercise sovereignty over Syria. Strategically, it is unusual as war, per Clausewitz’s classic definition, normally aims to make the enemy do what you want. If our intent is to punish Syria, no action is required of the Syrian government besides “being punished”—we wage war against it as an object, and do not ask anything of it in return. A war like that would not even be strategic.
So the goal is really more complicated—we aim to prevent as much as we aim to punish. By harming the Syrians, we hope that other states will hesitate to use chemical weapons. And we hope that the Syrians won’t use chemical weapons yet again. The former goal requires that our attack be brutal and effective enough that others would fear it. It’ll be hard to do that with the three days of cruise missiles that the Obama administration is hinting at.
But the latter goal is far harder. The Syrian government uses chemical weapons because the rebels threaten its survival. The United States needs to create a comparable threat if it wants Assad to think twice. Yet for now we aren’t attempting regime change, and a three-day war probably won’t give the rebels a decisive advantage. (Indeed, one anonymous official told the Los Angeles Times that the attack would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.... just enough to be more than symbolic.”) Assad has already lost half his country—we’d have to endanger a lot to hold his attention, and few in America want a war big enough to do that, or even want a war at all.
All is not lost. There are other ways to create near-existential fear. As Lincoln Bloomfield has pointed out, the Alawite elite that stands behind Assad has suffered relatively little, especially in its coastal homeland. Attacks there might have little significance to the broader civil war, but could reshape the internal discussion and create support for a negotiated settlement—America’s broader goal in Syria. Our expectations must be bounded, though. The Alawites rightly fear that an Assad defeat would see them driven, with savage violence, into a pathetic rump state behind the coastal mountains. It’ll take a lot to convince them to negotiate—a lot of force and a lot of confidence in their own diplomacy. But attacking them in their homeland offers a key advantage: compared to many other options, it is less likely to turn the tide of the war in favor of, say, Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebels, but more likely to alter Assad’s calculations.
A second option is to directly target those involved in the chemical attacks, and other members of the security elite. There’s some evidence that Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, commanded the recent atrocities. As head of a Syrian military unit, he’s a perfectly legitimate target in war. Yet individuals are notoriously hard to target, so while an attempt on his life should be made, other actions will be necessary. The units implicated in the chemical attacks should be struck viciously and without mercy. This fits the war’s punitive rhetoric, and could give pause to those ordered to carry out future chemical attacks. Such an attack will be difficult to carry out by cruise missile—ground-attack aircraft, supported by live intelligence from JSTARS and drone aircraft, would be more effective. (And surrounded by other Syrian divisions, the targeted units wouldn’t even be able to surrender, Iraqi Army-style, to their aerial attackers.)
Destroying Assad’s air defenses is worth serious consideration, as the three-day war probably won’t achieve its goal. We’ll most likely have to go back. Leaving Assad more vulnerable to a broader follow-up attack, this time by aircraft, will amplify whatever message we manage to send by making that follow-up attack easier and cheaper for us. On the other hand, it is unwise at this stage to destroy Assad’s air force. This is counterintuitive, given how important the air force is to his regime’s survival. But if our goal is to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons again, destroying his primary alternative to chemical weapons would be foolish. Further, leaving a fair share of his air force intact leaves him with something to lose—again amplifying our message. (Of course, if follow-up attacks do become necessary, much of the air force would have to be destroyed for the safety of our own pilots.)
In spite of all this, we cannot escape that Assad enjoys strategic advantages. We’ve signaled that we (rightly) aren’t willing to become deeply involved in Syria’s war. Assad, with his back to the wall, has a vastly greater pain tolerance than us. He can also attempt to use the war to his advantage—for example, by launching new chemical attacks in rebel-held areas he’s wanted to hit, and then announcing that the American campaign had caused their accidental release. He won’t want to provoke the United States too much (a broader war is still bad for him), but he’ll have many ways to retaliate through proxies and asymmetric methods (terrorism, etc.). This will inflict pain on us and our allies, but it will be harder for us to respond to than a naked Syrian attack.
Iran holds the strongest hand of all in this conflict. A U.S. entanglement in Syria couldn’t be better for Tehran. No matter how deeply involved we become, we’re unlikely to achieve outright victory. And the more deeply involved we become, the less power (military and diplomatic) we’ll have to wield against Iran. Israel will be left essentially alone in its stand against the Islamic Republic’s advancing nuclear program. Tying up America for even a year or two could be decisive, giving Iran enough time to develop a robust nuclear breakout capability, a capability that would leave it much less vulnerable to the United States—and especially to a United States left even more war-weary than it is now. Accordingly, we must be on guard for Iranian actions in and near Syria that aim to lure us deeper and keep us around for more than the White House’s scheduled three days of conflict.
The complexities of the situation and the numerous unfavorable dynamics mean that the Weekend War probably won’t achieve its goals, and may expose us to new dangers. Yet if we’re going to do this, we should do it right.
Image: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson. CC BY 2.0.
Here we go again. The season of planning documents in foreign and defense policy is arriving. In 2010, the Obama administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS), Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), meaning that their second-term equivalents would roughly be expected next year. At Foreign Policy, John Norris recalls that the 2010 QDDR—the first of its kind—took a whopping seventeen months to complete. This means that work on a successor would need to begin soon if it were to be kept on about the same schedule—that is, if there is even to be a second one. The word “quadrennial” in its title suggests that the 2010 version was intended to be the first in a recurring series, but it is not required by law, as are the QDR and NSS. An attempt was made last year to pass legislation that would institutionalize the review process and require the State Department to produce regular QDDRs, but it did not succeed.
Meanwhile, Doug Wilson argued last month at Defense One that the Defense Department should scrap the next QDR. Wilson contended that the January 2012 “Defense Strategic Guidance” had effectively performed all of the functions that the QDR was meant to address. He thus recommended that the Pentagon save itself all the man-hours and dollars required to conduct the review and “stick with the product produced last year, endorsed by consensus, strongly supported by the president and incorporating all of the requirements of a QDR.”
Is all of this just a waste of time? As others have observed before, the principal problem that tends to afflict these kinds of big-picture planning documents is that they often wind up simply serving as laundry lists, looking more like political speeches than articulations of strategy. They’re drafted by committee, meaning that every division within the department or interagency process gets to add their two cents about why their issue matters and the actions they are taking are important to the country. There is rarely if ever any real sense of prioritization—that is, a ruthless accounting of which issues are truly of vital importance and which ones represent only secondary interests.
For example, near the beginning of the 2010 NSS, the White House included a section titled “Advancing Top National Security Priorities.” In an excellent dissection of the document, the pseudonymous blogger Gulliver catalogued and paraphrased all the “priorities” that fell under this category:
Pursuit of a nonproliferation agenda/security weapons of mass destruction; disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and Associated Movements; succeeding in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; denying extremists safe haven in Pakistan; transitioning full responsibility for Iraqi security to that nation's sovereign government; comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and its neighbors (to include creation of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory); engagement with Muslim communities around the world; rebuilding American economic strength; pursuit of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements; support for individual opportunity and state capacity abroad; promotion of “universal values” (er, but just by example), to include global equality for women; the shaping of a just and stable international order “capable of addressing the problems of our time.”
As Gulliver rightly noted, if you have a whole bunch of priorities, you don’t really have any. The result is a document that capably outlines what the world would look like if the president of the United States had a magic wand and could reshape the world in any way he wanted, but one that pays little attention to the constraints that policy makers actually face. The same was true of the inaugural QDDR, as David Rieff described in these pages in 2011.
One defense of this ritual is that it’s a situation where “the process matters more than the product,” as Richard Fontaine argued in discussing the most recent NSS. In Fontaine’s words, in conducting one of these reviews, policy makers “are forced to think through core issues and future possibilities in a way that is much different from their day to day grind.” It’s true that it is easy for senior officials to get caught up in whatever the immediate crisis of the day is and eschew any long-range planning. Requiring them to do this kind of planning in a systemized way, therefore, makes some sense and has an intuitive logic to it.
Still, if we are going to require the White House, Pentagon and State Department to devote time to these reviews, they shouldn’t just be useful exercises for the people conducting them—the products should have some positive value as well. So, given that the practice of drafting them is not going away, here are a few very modest suggestions on how the process could be improved.
First, the NSS should be completed before all of the other subordinate documents. This has not happened the last several times; for instance, in 2010 the QDR was published in February while the NSS was not published until May. According to the law mandating the QDR, one of its chief purposes is “to delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy.” The idea is that the QDR and the military’s other planning documents are supposed to determine which of the objectives identified in the NSS require military means to be accomplished, and lay out what the Defense Department will do and what resources it needs to achieve them. When the QDR comes before the NSS, however, those writing it are left either relying on the previous NSS—even if it came from a different administration—or improvising and defining America’s objectives for themselves.
Second, these reports ought to contain at least some semblance of prioritization. This doesn’t mean that they need to have an ordered list of priorities ranked from most to least important. As Fontaine explains, administrations understandably don’t want to alienate overseas partners or domestic constituencies by declaring their pet issues to be minor or unimportant. At the same time, careful readers shouldn’t be left totally guessing as to what the government’s true priorities are either.
Finally—and this applies particularly to the NSS—it would be helpful if the government could develop a more modest and meaningful definition of the phrase “national security.” There’s an unfortunate tendency to cast any negative development that occurs abroad as a “national security” threat, even when the security of the American people is not really at issue. Likewise, following the true but banal assertion that America’s ability to project power and influence overseas depends on its economic strength at home, it’s also common to hear that the performance of the U.S. economy is a “national security” issue as well, as the 2010 NSS contended. The combined result is to render the phrase “important for national security” as virtually meaningless. It more or less serves as shorthand for “anything the United States would like to accomplish in the world,” or just as a club to beat one’s political opponents with. One big-picture strategic review is not going to change this, of course. But a document called the “National Security Strategy” would be as good a place as any to start.