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Obama’s confusing policy on Syria

Marvin Kalb, a professor emeritus at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is a senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the author of “The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed.”

An eerie silence has fallen over President Obama’s confusing policy toward the civil war in Syria.

A month or so after Obama announced, through a spokesman, that he had changed his policy and decided to send military supplies to the rebel forces fighting the Assad regime, the rebels contend they have yet to receive “a single bullet.” Questions mount by the day. Allies in the region wonder what’s up. And there are no clear answers.

Gallery

Gallery

Is the United States sending supplies to the rebels or not? If the rebels — who are split into competing clans — falter badly, as may now be the case, will Obama commit U.S. forces to the fight, or will he grudgingly accept an Assad victory? Is the United States facing another war in the Middle East or another strategic retreat — and humiliation?

In diplomacy, ambiguity can often be a powerful asset, and Obama obviously wants to play his Syrian card with cunning and caution. But after months of diplomatic dithering and unexplained policy shifts, it is time for the president to lead a national tutorial on Syria. Maybe Congress will follow. (Now that the Zimmerman trial is over, the networks may follow, too.) The American people and our allies deserve to know what is happening.

Since the end of World War II, the world has become accustomed to watching American presidents of both parties — armed with unprecedented, unchecked powers — lead the United States into one war after another. But not since December 1941 has a president asked Congress for a declaration of war, as is required by the Constitution. Declarations of war have apparently become relics of a bygone era — pre-nuclear, pre-Cold War, pre-terrorism.

Since then, only once, in 1973, has Congress acted to contain a president’s expanding war-making powers. The War Powers Act was a pathetic example of congressional frustration with the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. Interestingly, it was passed after that war was brought to a formal end, and it has proved impotent in stopping any later president from going to war.

Sadly, Congress has become largely irrelevant in the making and executing of U.S. foreign policy, and the president’s war-making powers have grown exponentially. He now sits like a European monarch of old, in command of his own all-volunteer army and in total charge of the nation’s foreign agenda.

It hasn’t always been this way. Congress used to perform its duties proudly. In the winter of 1966, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held extraordinary hearings on Vietnam. Senior officials, scholars, journalists — everyone sharing their knowledge and experience with the public. The hearings, under the chairmanship of Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), helped the nation learn about the war’s pros and cons, the faulty strategy, the missing purpose.

Another example, though less compelling: In January 1991, President George H.W. Bush, on the edge of sending U.S. troops to Kuwait, asked for congressional approval. He got it, after vigorous debate, by five votes in the Senate. Opponents vented their angry disapproval, but the president derived a special form of legitimacy from Congress for his decision to send more than 500,000 troops to the Middle East. Without the congressional pat on the back, Bush feared that he would have been impeached.

There are no such fears today. No one is seriously plotting to impeach Obama. The power he holds to make war has been accumulating over many administrations. For this and other reasons, we would not be shocked if, say, Obama went on television tonight and announced that he had decided to bomb Damascus, set up “no-fly” zones near Jordan and Turkey and send a limited number of Marines to turn the tide of battle and help the rebels defeat Bashar al-Assad. Some in Congress would undoubtedly fuss and fume. Others would surely criticize his policy. But none would argue that he did not have the power to order American troops into another war.

Wouldn’t it be better, though, if the president went on TV to launch a national discussion about the United States’ role in the unfolding drama of the Middle East, going beyond Syria to include Egypt and Iran? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if a new Fulbright emerged to lead Capitol Hill into a fresh appreciation of its crucial role in the making of foreign policy?

Only when the executive and legislative branches work together on matters of national security, especially the making of war, will the American people be properly served.

 
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