Gumming Up The War Machine: Obama Gambles With Congress On Syria
Much of the media representation surrounding the Obama Administration’s stance on Syria indicates that the president believes waging war against the Assad regime is regrettably necessary, and seemingly inevitable. Finding evidence to the contrary has been difficult at best, at least until this past Saturday, when Obama made the rather surprising announcement that he would defy historical military precedent and put the decision to go to war in Syria to a Congressional vote, something no president has done since World War Two. This decision has sparked a wave of speculation over his political motivations; words like ‘mystifying’ and ‘baffling’ are being bandied about the more prosaic among various media establishments.
In light of this decision, I have just one question: What if President Obama doesn’t want to go to Syria as much as he wants everyone to think he does?
It’s a gamble to be sure, but given the circumstances, Obama’s decision to put Syria to a congressional vote is a stroke of genius, and quite possibly the only thing he could do other than go to war. Now the spotlight has shifted onto our intractable Legislative branch, a sector marred by years of infighting, obstructionism, and scandal to actually come to a consensus about something, while the whole world watches. As a result, this whole thing could very well die in litigation, which would avert any sort of direct conflict while allowing the president to appear hawkish, yet thoughtful.
While things have indeed toned down a bit in the years following the Iraq War, any political rhetoric even remotely implying that we tone down national security is akin to career suicide in the post-9/11 world, so for Obama to draw a hard line against Syrian military engagement would damage beyond repair a credibility already under heavy siege. At the same time, pushing too hard for war with Syria will also lead to political sabotage; support for Syrian military engagement is abysmally low, and given the scope of and the focus paid to Obama’s domestic agenda as of late, he must walk a very fine line between general and scholar right now. Economist Robert Reich, speaking on Obama’s decision, had this to say upon the matter:
“Any president has a limited amount of political capital to mobilize support in Congress and, more fundamentally, with the American people. This is especially true of a president in his second term of office…[Obama's] domestic agenda is already precarious: implementing the Affordable Care Act, ensuring the Dodd-Frank Act adequately constrains Wall Street, raising the minimum wage, saving Social Security and Medicare from the Republican right as well as deficit hawks in the Democratic Party, ending the sequester and reviving programs critical to America’s poor, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and, above all, crafting a strong recovery. Even if he musters enough votes to strike Syria, at what political cost?”
What political cost, indeed. And there’s the rub: can Obama muster up enough votes to go to war without destroying his domestic agenda? Does he even want to? Reich goes on to say that:
“Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, are now arguing that a failure to act against Syria will embolden enemies of Israel like Iran and Hezbollah, and signal to Iran that the United States would tolerate the fielding of a nuclear device. This is the almost the same specious argument — America’s credibility at stake, and if we don’t act we embolden our enemies and the enemies of our allies — used by George W. Bush to justify toppling Saddam Hussein, and, decades before that, by Lyndon Johnson to justify a tragic war in Vietnam. It has proven to be a slippery slope.”
The echoes of our war with Iraq are still reverberating across the nation to this very day. In light of Saturday’s remarks, Obama’s use of the same “specious arguments” used to invade Iraq to justify war with Syria feels like a calculated decision, one designed to slip an extra round of jeers from the crowd in before passing the buck to Congress. Anti-war sentiment is growing increasingly hostile; both Democrats and Republicans will need to tread carefully with their decisions from here forward, as well as their remarks. Mid-terms are not long from now, and they’ve all got political capital to conserve, as well.
In the most immediate sense, Obama’s move to gum up the war machine with bureaucratic red tape stalls for time, maintaining appearances while giving the UN inspectors an opportunity to do their job: analyzing and reporting on the evidence they obtained. That way, if Congress does authorize and attack on Syria, at least we’ll know for certain who to point the cruise missiles at. In the meantime, it put the onus of responsibility for action in Syria on the international community, allowing America a potential opportunity to further distance itself from the responsibility of global police action. It’s easy to call the U.N. Security Council things like ‘weak’ and ‘ineffective’ when they’ve rarely been given them the opportunity to flex their political muscle. Perhaps President Obama wishes to give them that opportunity.
I realize that I’m likely going out on a limb here; Obama does has a knack for being able to tell everyone precisely what they wish to hear, and I’m hardly immune to that. But I find it difficult to quantify Saturday’s decision in any other way. Whatever the logic, Obama’s move towards good ol’-fashioned politics is some of the better political gamesmanship I’ve seen in quite some time, as seemingly effective as it was unprecedented, and worthy of a measure of respect.
Well played, Mr. President.
(NOTE: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria by a vote of 10-7. The die has been cast. Let the games begin.)
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