Congress: Your Guide to the Syria Vote

A look through the arguments and the interests at stake.

Suppose you are a member of the U.S. Congress, facing the looming vote on whether to authorize President Obama to bomb military targets of the Syrian government. You consider it your solemn obligation to bring a clear-headed and dispassionate analysis to this momentous war decision. Therefore, you have embraced two fundamental principles as a starting point in your deliberation.

First, you are not going to let partisan considerations color your thinking, and you will not be swayed by any desire to either advance or thwart Obama’s own political aims as he wrestles with the predicament he created for himself with his "red line" pronouncement of August 2012. Only U.S. interests will hold sway.

Second, you will ignore any political pressures emanating from AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups on the matter. If American citizens wish to pressure members of Congress in behalf of a foreign nation they particularly care about, that’s fine with you (though you wish they would accept the inevitable pushback as a natural and wholesome element of U.S. political discourse and not the product of some nefarious sentiments). But, when it comes to matters of war and peace involving the United States, you will seek to keep the focus on the interests of your own country. For other nations, the chips will have to fall as they may.

Having established these foundational principles, you begin your analysis with the question of what actually happened in Syria. We know that lethal nerve agents were used there in August, killing hundreds—perhaps many hundreds—of civilians, including children. And the U.S. government says there is no doubt these internationally banned weapons were employed by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime. There may be grounds for skepticism on some elements of the official line. For example, administration officials questioned the value of UN inspection efforts because of a time lag between the events and the arrival of the inspectors. But some experts say it is "simply untrue," as a McClatchy news article put it, that such a time lag seriously erodes this kind of evidence. A British intelligence summary stated, "There is no immediate time limit over which environmental or physiological samples would have degraded beyond usefulness."

Others question how Secretary of State John Kerry arrived at the conclusion that precisely 1,429 were killed by the nerve-gas attack, including exactly 426 children. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former top Defense Department official, suggests Kerry was "sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number." He notes that other experts have suggested the death toll was substantially lower.

But, even if such discrepancies give you pause as you pursue your congressional inquiry, they don’t constitute a strong rationale for voting against the authorization resolution. True, neither Kerry nor any other administration official has provided much credible evidence to support the government’s assertions. But the president deserves the benefit of the doubt on such matters, perhaps particularly in the wake of the huge hit to George W. Bush’s political and historical standing that followed his effort to take America into a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction that, it turned out, didn’t exist. Whether Bush’s action reflected a conscious effort to dissemble to the American people (as many believe) or was a reckless lack of regard for the actual facts (a more likely explanation), the lapse stands as perhaps the greatest lesson on war-and-peace matters in the American consciousness today. It seems unlikely that Obama would put himself in a position to repeat that infamous mistake.

Next you turn your attention to the administration’s assertion that American credibility is at risk, particularly given Obama’s "red line" warning. For some (perhaps particularly Republicans), there may be a temptation to dismiss this argument based solely on the foolishness of Obama’s red-line challenge. It was an amateur hour gaffe. But, in committing it, Obama placed his country on the line, and thus this is not an entirely frivolous matter. Great nations shouldn’t issue warnings and then erase them by default when the actions they warned against take place. On the other hand, it seems just a bit absurd to suggest, as some proponents of military action have, that America, which spends more on defense than the next thirteen nations combined, will wilt into military impotence in the eyes of the world if it doesn’t attack little Syria.

Ultimately, though, whatever the merits of these competing arguments, the credibility question isn’t definitive. There are too many far larger questions surrounding the decision for this to hold sway one way or the other.

A far more serious question is the lack of precision in the administration’s definition of the mission. Initially, the aim was described as deterring Assad from ever again deploying chemical weapons and degrading his ability to do so. But The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Pentagon now is preparing to "employ greater firepower to reach a shifting array of military targets." The paper explained that, while the strike is aimed specifically at Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it also "would degrade Mr. Assad’s overall military strength—suggesting a broader purpose."