Open questions on Syria

September 1, 2013

With the belated decision to pass the buck to Congress, President Obama’s appearance yesterday raised numerous questions.

President Obama in Germany
President Obama appears at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

If the president gets a stunning rebuke from Congress, a “no” vote, what then? If he believes Bashar al-Assad has committed crimes against humanity and U.S. security is implicated he very well can’t say, “Never mind.” So is the congressional vote all for show?

Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise tells me, “The correct thing for Congress to do now is to authorize the use of force in pursuit of U.S. national security interests and express opinions about how that force might best be used.  To vote against AUTHORIZING the use of force because you don’t think the president is
going to do enough to be useful is folly — it simply places the moral onus for
all that follows on Congress.” But, he says the president can’t shirk his duty: “In
reality, the ball is in the court of the president, who, as commander-in-chief,
actually has both the sole right and the responsibility to decide on precisely
how to apply force once Congress has authorized it.” He suggests Congress would have been smarter to point to the War Powers Act, which does not require prior permission from Congress.

Why wait so long? Congress won’t take up the matter until Sept. 9, and who knows how long this will take. Assad’s ability to move and conceal assets increases with each passing day. Moreover, the delay suggests there is no urgency here, yet another signal we are not serious.

What about the sequester? The president is in an untenable position of deciding on military action while refusing to alter the sequester cuts that do not allow for the funding of his own policy. I doubt he’ll be able to maintain the position that he’ll pay for his strike (essential to national security) only if Congress raises taxes on the “rich.” Even for him, that would be bizarre.

Does he have the votes? I briefly surveyed a half-dozen leadership offices. The answer from all of them was “Who knows?”

It is doubtful if the president knows either, which reinforces the conclusion that he is flying blind here and willing to sacrifice national security at the altar of domestic partisanship. The Republicans will split, but the Democrats I suspect will have a knock-down-drag-out fight. Do they humiliate their own president or give up their anti-war credentials.

What do 2016 contenders do? Starting with Hillary Clinton, this must be a flashback to Iraq where her vote for authorization essentially cost her the nomination. If she can be pinned down (and really, how cowardly would it be to refuse to speak up?) she will have to decide if she risks a repeat of 2008 when she was at odds with the anti-war left or she rebuffs her own president and, to a certain extent, her own policy (which in 2012 was already dealing with the prospect of chemical weapons). Even more problematic for her is if Dems in the shadows (e.g. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold) see an opening here and pipe up with opposition to authorization.

On the GOP side, things will be more predictable. The isolationist right (e.g. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah)) will in all likelihood oppose any move; they’re in the business of casting irresponsible votes, after all. Presumably, foreign policy grown-up’s like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will vote to authorize force, but of late Rubio has been chasing after his base (on the suicide shutdown squad) so it is by no means certain that he will vote yes.

What is the policy here? Oh, yes – that. Obama is so concerned about tying his own hands that his policy has become incoherent (or gotten even more incoherent, if you prefer). He either ends the risk of chemical weapons by destroying them and/or the regime using them or his words, once again, are empty.

Is this how Iran will work? I’m curious what Dems who all along have assured us that Obama would use military force if needed to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon see how improbable it is that a president dithering so after the use of WMD’s would act preemptively against Iran. He’ll certainly play the game of “uncertain intelligence” and insist on endless negotiations and then kick it to Congress. By that time it will be too late, very possibly just the situation which forces him to adopt a “containment” strategy (which he swore he’d never do).

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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Jennifer Rubin | September 1, 2013