SPEAKING SATURDAY on Al Jazeera America, Jim Walsh, an international security specialist at MIT, offered a trenchant analysis of President Obama’s latest and unexpected decision on the crisis in Syria: “If this was a poker game, he just raised. He went all in.”
Walsh was referring to how the president had taken a situation with few if any good options and made a way out of no way. With the mainstream media and much of official Washington convinced that the United States was on its way to another foreign war, with the president set to unilaterally order a military strike on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Obama changed course on Saturday, opting instead to seek congressional approval of the contemplated “limited, narrow” attack on Syrian military targets.
With one deft move, Obama changed the game on planned actions against the Assad regime, which the White House blames for the Aug. 21 gas attacks in Syria, in which more than 1,400 people died, including 426 children, in a chemical assault on a wide range of Syrian towns. By choosing to go through congressional channels consistent with the War Powers Act of 1973, the president resists being saddled with the cowboy meme established by George W. Bush during the two wars of his administration’s creation.
The president’s gambit also ushers in the domestic side of the greatest crisis of the Obama second term, a potential farrago whose resolution will dominate the White House second-term agenda from now to the end of the year.
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“Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century,” Obama said in the Rose Garden. “This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
“Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. ...
“Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order.
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BUT HAVING made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
“And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”
“I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective,” he said, adding that he’d contacted the majority and minority leaders in the Senate and the House.
Later in the day, the White House forwarded to Congress a draft of a resolution, authorizing the president to use military force. It’s sure to be Action Item #1 when Congress comes back in session on Sept. 9.
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The president, along with Secretary of State John Kerry (in the role of deputy hawk) were prepared to act on what it said was corroborative information, including that in an NBC News report that said the United States had intercepted an internal Syrian government communication that indicated it was Assad’s brother, a commander of the Syrian Republican Guard, who personally authorized the Aug. 21 attacks.
The Brits, even while opting out of any attacks on Damascus, concurred on Thursday, when a report from the UK’s Joint Intelligence Operation concluded “that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the [chemical weapon] attacks on 21 August.”
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NOW, THOUGH, the ball is thrown into the court of a Congress well-known for its willingness to oppose Obama on everything but what he orders for lunch. For Republicans and conservatives who’ve long hoped to regain their reputation as American hawks ever-bullish on defense — the same people in Congress who’ve opposed the president by reflex since he first took office – Obama’s prudent U-turn puts them in the position of looking soft on national security if they vote no, and (anathema to most of them) supporting the president on a big issue if they vote yes.
The Congress we’ve come to know, a body enamored of willful gridlock, can probably be expected to drag its feet even after they reconvene on Sept. 9, but Obama’s remand of the issue to Congress means he’s already committed to the idea of taking his time on dealing with Syria – a line of thought consistent with his cerebral, painstaking style of decision-making.
This time, Congress, by its own request, gets tasked with doing some of the early heavy lifting on Syria. Whether they’re up to it may have repercussions for various GOP re-election efforts in the runup to the 2014 midterms.
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There are risks for Obama, too. Some in the media – conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, Newsmax, Andrea Mitchell of NBC – have already characterized Obama’s new gradualist position as one of geopolitical weakness. (Days earlier, before Obama’s turnabout, the media was just as prepared to cite the president for being an international cowboy for planning to go it alone on Syria. Damned if you do/don’t...)
But more important, the polling has been against him. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Friday, found that 29 percent of Americans feel that the United States should intervene if Assad's government used chemical weapons on civilians. That’s up from 25 percent the week before. Some 44 percent opposed U.S. intervention even if chemicals were used; that’s down from 46 percent the week before.
An NBC News poll, also released Friday, found that 50 percent oppose American intervention in Syria, 42 percent supporting it. The same survey found that almost 80 percent of the public wants Obama to seek congressional approval before taking any military action in Syria.
Obama’s Rose Garden volte-face on a unilateral attack on Saturday makes it clear he’s listening to the public, on that poll, at least.
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ALL OF this puts pressure on the president and on Congress, but ironically, it also puts pressure where it hasn’t been widely considered: on Bashar al-Assad himself.
As world attention focuses on Syria, and as the world gains (tenuous) sympathy with the Syrian rebels and (more deeply held) sympathy for the brutally victimized Syrian people, the rationale for what the Assad regime almost certainly did on Aug. 21 hasn’t disappeared. The strength of the rebel resistance that presumably made the gas attacks necessary in the first place won’t be any less intense now, with the whole world watching, than it was before.
One chilling scenario: Assad, in a bid not to look weak himself, may decide to order new gas attacks while Congress deliberates. Nothing would militarily galvanize other Gulf states, and the world, against the Assad regime more quickly than that. Nothing would embarrass Russia (an ally of Syria) more completely than that.
When a regime is forced to use extraordinary measures like chemical weapons on its own population to claim any leverage on the battlefield, it’s clear the opposition can’t be defeated through the usual military means. Doubling down on a previous course of action with chemical weapons could be internally and regionally disastrous for Assad’s regime; standing pat and continuing to fight it out in the streets with the rebels won’t be any more dispositive for Assad now than it’s been since the civil war started two years ago.
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The fact that Democrats and Republicans are split on the issue – almost evenly in the NBC poll – isn’t necessarily problematic; that fact removes a lot of the partisan taint hovering over any White House decision, and also provides members of Congress a degree of political cover no matter which way they vote.
It’s down to Congress to decide what it thinks, and the president’s shift of position on Saturday will soon force Congress to make a decision that puts domestic politics on one of the backburners and compels the United States to take its place as leader of the world.
Kerry said last week that “if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity ... and then the world does nothing about it ... there will be no end to the test of our resolve.”
An isolationist public, and critics of any possible American military intervention in Syria, have been thorough to a fault in explaining the risks of action. It’s down to Congress – reconvening two days before the 12th anniversary of 9/11 – to offer up its answer to the corollary questions they can’t walk away from: What’s the risk in inaction? What are the dangers of doing nothing?
Obama to Congress: I’m all in. Your move.
Image credits: Obama: The White House. Syrian in mourning: The Associated Press. Obama and Baltic leaders: AFP/Jim Watson. Assad: unknown.