Republican lawmakers will soon face one of the most important decisions of their careers.
The text of the Syria resolution the White House has sent to Congress reads as follows:
a) Authorization. — The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria in order to –
(1) prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons; or
(2) protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.
This leaves open the possibility that if extensive strikes or even regime change is needed, U.S. involvement could be much wider than what President Obama has described. In fact, there is an argument that the delay inevitably will make whatever action is to follow broader, longer and more dangerous now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has squirreled away his weapons of mass destruction. (What prevents him from parking them in Tehran? Or putting them in schools?)
But the president said “narrow” and “limited,” you say. Well, after so many reversals and considering what he put in writing for Congress’ approval, let’s not take the president at his word (his word as of 1:45 p.m. Saturday). In any event, Congress has only the power of a resolution to influence how the president might conduct his military action.
What will Republicans do? Some obviously want to do nothing, either because they relish embarrassing the president or because they don’t think Assad’s use of chemical weapons requires a response. There is nothing one can say to convince them otherwise. Since they will vote “no” on anything, their views are irrelevant.
The members of another faction, however, are deeply troubled by the lack of a game plan and the president’s insistence on a limited operation. Obama’s chairman of the joint chiefs has already explained how extensive a mission aimed at the weapons of mass destruction will be. They believe that if the president is serious about all the caveats, the mission cannot be accomplished. And they believe that if the president is just spouting soothing words and trying to avoid the comparison to George W. Bush, then he’s not leveling with the American people.
The temptation for Republicans would be to vote “no.” This is the worst possible outcome for all the reasons Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about on Friday. We need to draw a clear line for Syria and other rogue powers; we need to maintain credibility in the region; and we have an overwhelming humanitarian problem that threatens to imperil other allies, such as Jordan. The situation is arguably more dire than it was when President Bill Clinton authorized military force in Bosnia. With a “no” vote there is the risk the president will throw up his hands and do nothing (despite what he has said). At the very least, it would show our enemies that he is on shaky ground. For those who support a strong American presence in the world, this is utterly unacceptable.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this dilemma.
Resolutions can be amended. This one should be. An amended resolution could authorize the president to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction, provided he has a plan in hand to accomplish those ends. Congress can’t micro-manage what those plans are, but it can communicate to the president and the country that Congress expects the president to do something that will actually work. No shots across the bow, thank you. (In the view of military experts outside the administration, this requires hitting widespread targets, including the Syrian air force. Congress say that cosmetic action would be unacceptable and self-defeating and leaving Assad in power with access to chemical weapons would actually embolden him to use them.
In addition, and this is critical, Congress should incorporate legislation to hold off on the military cuts required by the sequester. The chairman of the joint chiefs has already said this operation will cost billions of dollars. That is not budgeted, and, consistent with the president’s views, we should not engage in an off-budget war. It would be irresponsible for Congress to authorize action but not the funds to pay for it.
In sum, responsible Republicans should give the president their considered advice: Get rid of the weapons of mass destruction, don’t take their assent as agreement for ineffective measures and properly fund the Pentagon to do what you want. The president will do what he wants (he said he has the right to anyway), but Congress will have not absolved him of the commander-in-chief’s responsibility to devise means and assemble resources to do the job. He asked for their opinion, and this would express the view of responsible internationalists.
If the White House balks at such an approach, it would be a warning signal that Obama really is planning on a cosmetic move or wants to be told to do nothing and/or doesn’t want to fund the Pentagon to pay for a military action he deems necessary. Congress can’t make the president lead, but it can point the way for him and the country.