Vladimir Putin's op ed about U.S. policy toward Syria unsurprisingly did not go down well with many American readers, principally because it was coming from Putin. They undoubtedly see an issue of whether Putin has the moral and political standing to be so preachy with Americans. As Steven Lee Myers reminds us in the New York Times, when Putin took back the presidency a year ago he “moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices” and since then has “promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, and kept providing arms to the Syrian government.” Speaker of the House John Boehner said he felt “insulted” by Putin's piece, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said that upon reading it he “almost wanted to vomit.”
Does President Obama want to go to war in Syria for Sasha and Malia? In his address last night, Obama repeatedly invoked the gassing of hundreds of children in Syria to make the case for military action. He indicated that countenancing the Syrian regime’s deployment of chemical weapons on August 21 would mean that Americans eventually might become the target of such attacks.
And he made the moral case for action. Obama was, in effect, admonishing Americans for their reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of religious and ethnic animosities that has transformed Syria from a repressive dictatorship into a country with violent factions trying to turn it back into a unified and repressive dictatorship. "What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?" Obama said. At the same time, he acknowledged that America cannot serve as the "world's policeman." Just a neighborhood watch committee?
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.
Remember how, three weeks ago, British officials detained at Heathrow Airport the Brazilian boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald, who has been facilitating the public spewing of secrets stolen by leaker-defector Edward Snowden? One heard hue and cry about this latest supposed overreach by security authorities, who were picking on not just a journalist but his domestic partner. Greenwald wailed that this was an escalation of “attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism,” that “to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic,” and that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by.” Greenwald further complained that the authorities had taken his boyfriend's computer and memory sticks and said nothing about returning them.
While President Obama expends political capital trying to win backing for a military endeavor that most Americans oppose and that received scant support at the G-20 summit meeting, upheaval in the Middle East is about to enter a new phase no matter what happens in Syria. We are probably seeing the beginning of a new wave of terrorism in Egypt. Although it would be a mistake to extract too many conclusions from a single incident, a powerful bomb—for which no one claimed responsibility—in Cairo on Thursday that was aimed at a convoy carrying the Egyptian interior minister may mark the start of such a wave. Two days later Egyptian military engineers defused a bomb placed on a railroad line near the Suez Canal.
A surge in terrorism in Egypt was made all but inevitable by events there of the last few months. The regime led by General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has excluded from political participation a major stream of sentiment in the Egyptian body politic, as represented in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has exhibited brutality by killing hundreds in the process of quashing otherwise peaceful protests. The combination of an absence of peaceful channels and anger over the severe and bloody methods of the regime is just the sort of recipe that inspires a move to terrorist violence.
After it looked this past weekend like President Obama might have an uphill fight to gain Congressional approval for a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria, the odds now appear to have swung in favor of passage of a resolution. This swing is due less to John Kerry's passionate “Munich moment” exhortations than to the fact that the Israel lobby has entered the fray, openly and explicitly, in favor of intervention. AIPAC made it official on Tuesday. The Israeli government may have the deciding vote on the matter before Congress, not so much because it appears to have been the source of intelligence that the Obama administration is relying on to make a case tying the chemical incident two weeks ago to the Assad regime (although there are interesting questions to be raised about that) but because members of Congress anticipating their next re-election campaign will be thinking about what type of vote Benjamin Netanyahu's government desires, a criterion that routinely gets equated in American political discourse with “support for Israel.”
President Obama's referral of the Syria question to Congress should not have come as a surprise. This president is not avidly seeking direct U.S. involvement in another Middle Eastern war. He is moving to do something forceful about Syria largely because he has been pressured to do something forceful about Syria. It is not surprising that he seeks as much buy-in as possible from the legislative branch. He and his political advisers also will be able to watch how this issue intensifies intramural tussles among Republicans.
Besides any reasons for the referral that may please the president's political advisers, there are good reasons that ought to please any American citizen. Involving the legislative branch on this important decision is, just as the president said in his statement on Saturday, the way a constitutional democracy ought to operate. A Congressional debate and vote on whether or not to authorize the use of military force against Syria will be an encouraging step that will, at least for the moment, reverse the discouraging atrophy of Congress's war-making power.
There also are some early signs that the debate will go beyond surface rationales and delve into some of the more important implications of the proposed use of military force. Although there is still too much focus on one reported use of an unconventional weapon, some members have explicitly acknowledged that an empirical question about a chemical weapons incident is different from the policy question of whether it makes sense to apply U.S. military force in Syria.
An Associated Press story on the Obama administration's preparation of the public for a military strike on Syria includes these statements:
The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack [with chemical weapons last week] directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military acting without Assad's authorization.
That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad...
The CIA and the Pentagon have been working to gather more human intelligence tying Assad to the attack...
When one hears that policy-makers want not just intelligence on a particular subject but intelligence that supports a particular conclusion about that subject, antennae ought to go up. A “quest” for conclusion-bolstering material is fundamentally different from an open-minded use of intelligence to inform policy decisions yet to be made. It is instead a matter of making a public (and Congressional) case to support a decision already made.
These two different uses of intelligence constitute markedly different working environments for intelligence officers. The great majority of those officers strive to arrive at their best and most objective judgments given the incomplete information available to them. They also are human beings. When they are called on to interpret sketchy and ambiguous data, and when they know that the people for whom they work seek support for a particular conclusion, it should not be surprising if that knowledge affects their interpretations, even if only at some sub-conscious level.
Barack W. Bush. Joe Cheney. Here they come. Girded for a war that the British took one look at and bailed out on before it even began. Announcing that they are prepared to go it alone. Who said that unilateralism went away with George W. Bush?
Obama said acting unilaterally was a bad thing when he campaigned for office in 2008. That was then. Obama, who has followed in Bush's footsteps on national security surveillance measures, as the Washington Post's extensive revelations about the reach of government spy agencies show today, is about to go to war again.
Vice-president Joe Biden sounds like Cheney redivivus when he declares that there is "no doubt" that Bashar al-Assad authorized the use of weapons of mass destruction. All that's missing is a reference to yellow cake or the claim that this enterprise will be a cake walk. Meanwhile, the White House is engaging in magisterial Bush-speak, invoking the defense of the homeland: "The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests in the United States of America," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Well, yes. But this dodges the real question, which is: Will he be protecting America's national security interests by attacking Syria? Or will he undermine them?
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.