Little did I suspect when I put down my pen on August 30, having finished “Painted into a Corner, Obama Ponders Cosmetic Strikes”, that yet another self-inflicted verbal wound from the White House could possibly make the crisis of U.S. Syria policy even worse. I guess I misunderestimated the man. President Obama’s decision to go to Congress for the authority to send just a “shot across the bow” in Syria is perhaps tactically shrewd and politically useful to him in the short run, but it is disastrous in every important way for U.S. foreign and national security policy looking ahead.
Since a great deal has already been said about why this is—Fred Hof’s essay from the Atlantic Council is among the best—you will forgive me for not expounding these points except by way of four naked, virtually unsupported assertions (because there are other less commonly expressed observations I want to make):
First, the President’s decision discounts Executive authority generally and likely ties the hands of future Presidents. When President Clinton ordered Operation Desert Fox in 1998, four days of serious bombing of Iraqi targets designed also to “degrade” enemy capabilities, he did not seek congressional authorization and, as far back as my memory takes me, no one in Congress made a big deal out it. Certainly after Obama’s decision, no Democratic President will lightly contemplate any even remotely significant use of force without congressional authorization, and it will make it harder for Republican Presidents to do so as well. This is bad, unless one somehow thinks that turning over key and urgent national security decisions to 535 would-be Secretaries of Defense and State is a good idea.
Second, more specifically, it further undermines U.S. credibility with Iran, and hence makes an Israeli strike on Iranian facilities even more likely than before. If Obama goes to Congress for a minor “shot across the bow”, how can he not go to Congress if, as is quite likely, a showdown with Iran looms within the next three years? Giving Congress a veto over U.S. strategy toward Iran can only goad on the most adventurous elements in the Iranian political pantheon—hardly a way to go about testing, just by the by, President Rouhani’s supposedly promising moderation.
Third, by going to Congress as a last resort, looking for some risk-sharing partners in the aftermath of the British vote, and by not calling Congress into immediate special session for the purpose, Obama gives the impression that he is all tactics and no strategy, all opportunism and no principles—which of course happens to be the damaging truth (of which more below). That reduces his credibility and the country’s with it even more, not just with regard to Iran, but also to the entire region and the whole world. The widespread suspicion that he actually hopes Congress will say “no”, just happening to stab his forward-leaning Secretary of State in the back in the process, makes it that much worse.
Fourth, the delay in getting Congressional authorization until September 9, if indeed the President gets it even then, makes the military task significantly harder as we try to track the whereabouts of moving (and hiding) targets. General Dempsey’s contention that delay has no impact on our likely effectiveness is politically inflected nonsense, and nonsense unbecoming of a JCS Chairman at that. The less effective any strike turns out to be also, of course, compounds the reputational disaster the President has created.
Having gotten all that out of the way, I want to use the rest of this post to make three points: one about Iran; one about what and how this President thinks; and one about our least worse option at this point.
As to Iran, today’s New York Times’s reports that Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman recently travelled to Iran to meet with the new Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Ambassador Feltman is attached to the U.S. legation at the UN right now, but he used to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near East & South Asia, and before that—when I got to know him—he was our Ambassador in Lebanon. (I wrote Secretary Powell’s remarks on the occasion of his swearing in.) He’s a senior serious guy, and so this is real news bearing—possibly—on the President’s reluctance to make good on his threat to shoot that bow shot. How?
There is reason to believe that some senior Administration decision-makers have believed in the past that if the U.S. government does nothing to interfere with Iran’s getting its way in Syria, the Iranians will toss up a nice quid pro quo and agree to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program in good faith. This is delusional and dangerous thinking, but perhaps the election of a new President in Iran has brought this particular delusion back into play. The NYT report suggests, without apparent evidence, that Feltman was trying to sound out the Iranians on what effect a U.S.-led strike on Syria would have on their propensity to negotiate. Sultan Qabus of Oman is said to be possibly engaged in a similar endeavor with Ayatollah Khameinei himself.
This all sounds sort of screwy to me, besides which we don’t know what instructions or messages Feltman carried (or heard). But the vicissitudes of U.S. back-channel engagement with Iran could be having an impact on the President’s thinking. Maybe the Iranians’ showing a little ankle could persuade the President that he needs to find some way to crawl back from his threats. Maybe that helps explain the decision to go to Congress in hopes of losing the vote.
Ah, but then the President met yesterday with Senator McCain and apparently won his blessing for a strike, as long as it would really and truly degrade Syrian military capabilities. That means a bigger and riskier strike than just using cruise missiles as standoff weapons. Is the President’s pledge to McCain worth anything? The details remain unspoken, but McCain seemed upbeat—even happy. We’ll see if he’s still smiling in a few weeks. That said, for now and all else equal, that meeting makes a “yes” vote more likely, though without exactly ensuring it. The plot thickens; the stomach turns; the mind reels with a question: What the hell is this guy thinking anyway? Does he want Congress to vote “yes” or “no”? The fact that no one’s really sure is not at all helpful, to put it mildly.
As to how and what the President thinks, he thinks about politics. That’s what he knows and that’s what he’s very good at. And as to partisan matters, the question of attacking Syria is splitting the GOP right down its muscle-toneless middle. That’s useful. But the narrowness of the President’s attention also helps to explain the astonishing fact that, after having drawn a red line on the use of chemical warfare, no preparation to react to Syria’s crossing of it appears to have gone forward. That makes one wonder if the President actually understands what a “shot across the bow” means. At the risk of being tedious, let me merely point out that this locution constitutes a warning of further action if the target does not desist from doing objectionable things. It says, hey look, I can reach you and more besides; the next one’ll come amidships. But if your body language tells the world that the shot across the bow is being lofted for its own sake as an expression of pique, just to redeem the President’s mouth from its errors, and that nothing will follow, then it can’t be a warning, can it?
This is not just a semantic observation. What if, after having shot across Syria’s bow the Syrian regime crosses the red line again, and again? Based on what we saw recently, there is probably no plan for that; no sense at all of what we will do in that case. The ineluctable conclusion flowing from this line of logic is that, save for the partisan political uses of the turn to Congress, the President simply does not care enough about this business to have ever really thought it through, and control freak that he is, he’s not let anyone else think or do anything serious about it either. That very much includes his second Secretary of State, whose back he has no more than he had that of the first.
OK, so what, then, should we do in the face of what is the most incompetent display of presidential foreign policymaking I have ever witnessed? We now have three very distasteful options before us. Option one is doing nothing, which now depends, it seems, on Congress voting “no”—because despite all that’s happened, it is very hard to believe that Congress would vote “yes” and the President would anyway then demur. Option two is the symbolic, one-off wrist slap which, as I argued on August 30, is probably worse than doing nothing. Option three is really beating the hell out of the Assad regime (and a few clusters of Sunni fanatics, too, while we’re at it) but without getting dragged into continuing escalating measures—a very, very tricky business. Again I refer you back to my earlier comments, twice now, on what MOABs/daisy cutters can do.
I don’t like any of these options, but of course at this point we have to choose anyway. If Barack Obama had a year or so left in office, I would choose option one. But the fact that he has more than three years left in office pushes me reluctantly toward door number three. The restoration of American credibility, often an argument of scoundrels when posed in stand-alone form during ordinary circumstances, is paramount now, in what are decidedly not ordinary circumstances. We simply cannot risk three years with any American President’s reputation so far down in the crapper.