The last of the ancient kings of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was approached one day by a woman who offered nine books of prophecy at a steep price. The king refused; the price was too high. The woman burned three of the books and offered the remaining six at the original price. Nothing doing, said the king. She burned three more of the books and offered the remaining three books at the same price: this time, the king bought.
That is not a bad description of President Obama’s approach to Syria. Originally, he had a chance to nip the destructive civil war in the bud, dealing Iran and Russia a major blow, isolating Hezbollah, preventing genocidal levels of slaughter, reassuring key allies about his commitment and resolve, and preventing the development of a new wave of trained and funded jihadis in the heart of the Middle East.
No deal, said President Obama, too expensive.
Then the slaughter came, the jihadi groups gained prestige and funding, and Hezbollah jumped into the war. But the President still had the opportunity to solidify his alliances in the region, and blunt the effects of Russian and Iranian support for Assad.
No, said the President; it still costs too much.
As time went by, the Egyptian military and the Saudis lost more and more confidence in an administration they believed to be trapped in a fog of moralism and illusion. They acted in concert against the President’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, ruining the White House’s hopes to work with moderate and democratic Islamist groups in the region and handing the White House a first class humiliation when the bloody non-coup coup went ahead.
And so now, when most of the possible gains that could come from intervention in Syria have been lost, the President finally seems ready to act. Like King Tarquin the Proud, President Obama is now getting ready to put his money down, even though most of the goodies have been taken off the table.
If we are to believe the latest talk coming out of Washington, the White House is now considering a plan for punitive strikes in Syria in response to what it claims is overwhelming evidence that pro-Assad forces used have used chemical weapons. But this appears to be less out of conviction than out of a reluctant recognition that the President is “boxed in” (as The Hill put it) by his own rhetoric. Having said—in an unscripted and apparently ill-considered statement that Politico’s Blake Hounshell says “stunned” the President’s staffers—that the use of chemical weapons was a ‘red line’, and having dithered and dodged through earlier reports of such use, President Obama seems to feel that he has run out of wiggle room. As David Aaron Miller of the Carnegie Institute put it in Politico,
Obama’s credibility is already low. It would be nonexistent without some sort of action, and would badly damage his capacity to be taken seriously in the Middle East. Entering what could be a decisive period of diplomacy with Iran on the nuclear issue, the United States will need to create the perception that it is prepared to use force if diplomacy fails, and to enforce red lines that have already turned pink in the case of Syria.
A President who would not go to war to stop massacres, who would not intervene to prevent terrorists from establishing enclaves in the heart of the Middle East, who would not move either to frustrate his most bitter international opponents or to oblige his closest regional allies is about to bomb Syria because a slip of the tongue placed him in a morally and politically intolerable position.
The word in DC seems to be that the President plans to split the difference between war and peace. He is looking to order some military strikes against Syria while making clear that his goal isn’t to ensure Assad’s downfall or to launch a renewed US push to make post-war Syria a somewhat less horrible and less dangerous place than it now seems destined to become. He won’t put it this way, but the President’s goal appears to send just enough cruise missiles or bombs into Syria to prevent everyone from saying he flinched on his ‘red line’ comment. He will say he is bombing in righteous rage; his enemies will say he is bombing to save face.
This kind of decision is exactly the kind of split the difference thinking that has gotten the President into trouble in the past. Surge in Afghanistan—but pre-announce your withdrawal. Attack Syria, but make it clear to everyone that you don’t mean anything serious by it.
That kind of thinking will not impress America’s wavering Middle East allies. It will likely not impress Butcher Assad or his friends in the Kremlin and Teheran. It will not strengthen the moderates in the Syrian opposition. It will not stop or even slow the killing. It will not bolster the President’s credibility at home. King Tarquin got a better deal.
We also wonder just what constitutional authority the President’s lawyers can find for the use of American forces without congressional authorization when there is no imminent danger to US citizens, US forces, or even to foreign nationals, given that this is a punitive rather than a preventative action under discussion. If there are any limits to presidential war power at all, they should be operating here. If there is an article in the Constitution that allows presidents to use force at will throughout the world whenever the editors of the New York Times feel that such action is morally incumbent, the interesting proviso has somehow escaped our attention here at VM. Does the US constitution really allow presidents to launch humanitarian expeditions (or in this case, humanitarian bombing raids) at will, without any authorization of any kind?
We think the Commander in Chief has and must have a broad and indefinite though not infinite discretion to act swiftly and decisively on security grounds; we do not think this power extends to the discretionary use of force on grounds of moral umbrage. The United States in our view has a right and in some cases may have a duty to use force internationally when the most basic laws of civilization are being flouted with impunity, but Congress, not this or any president, has the responsibility under our Constitution to determine whether a particular act by a foreign government amounts to an act of war against the civilized standards this nation feels bound to uphold.
The White House has not yet announced what its decision on Syria will be. We hope that wise counsels will prevail—that the White House understands that it has a strategic Syria problem and not merely a humanitarian chemical weapons problem, and that it will act decisively, strategically and legally to address the danger that the ongoing war in Syria presents to vital US interests. President Obama must aim to make a difference and not just a point; whatever the US does should be about changing the equation in Syria and not just a display of kinetic moral dudgeon.
This won’t be easy. As Clausewitz reminds us, the goal of force must be political. Is President Obama trying to bomb Assad to the bargaining table? Weaken him enough so that he gets on a plane to retire in Sochi? Bomb him just hard enough so that Assad only massacres Syrians in the many ways that don’t involve testing President Obama’s red lines? Can Assad kill another 50,000, 100,000 or more Syrians as long as he keeps his hands off the chemical weapons? The President needs a goal in Syria for bombing to be more than an act of moral pique; it’s not clear that he has one.
Regular readers of Via Meadia will remember that we urged the President to pay the Sybil’s price back when all nine books were on the table. We continued to urge him to pay up, though with less conviction, when she went down to six. Now it is down to the last three books; we might well support a presidential decision to buy even these, but only (to exit the metaphor) if the President comes forward with a serious plan to deal with the growing threat that the chaos in Syria poses to a range of American interests in what remains a vital part of the world.
The situation in Syria demands a serious response from the United States. Let’s hope that President Obama has realized at long last just how dangerous the horror in Syria has become, and that whatever steps he announces in the coming days will be only the first pieces of a coherent and hard headed approach to the steadily deteriorating situation in a region of vital interest to the United States and its allies around the world.