On Saturday, President Obama announced to the world that he would seek Congressional approval to engage in any military action against Assad’s regime. That’s all fine and good; the right to declare war belongs to Congress as stated in the U.S. Constitution.
However, this pronouncement of the president is the latest in a series of responses to Syrian atrocities that seems to be another delaying tactic, an excuse for further presidential inaction, rather than the formulation and expression of a coherent policy vis-à-vis war crimes and the use of weapons of mass destruction. Historically, when a president has asked for affirmation from Congress to go to war, the outcome was a predictable vote of support for the president. Here, it seems as if the president wants to abdicate responsibility.
The president looks like a novice chess player who just keeps pushing his pieces around the board with little thought beyond making a move that will keep the game going. As the Syrian civil war has raged, the president first called on Assad to stop the violence. When that failed, he suggested that the Syrian dictator step down.
As the violence escalated and civilian deaths mounted, the president drew his “red line,” saying that use of chemical weapons by Assad would trigger a U.S. response. In May, when reports surfaced that Assad did, in fact, use chemical weapons, the president demanded more evidence before committing to intervention.
Now, the evidence appears incontrovertible. British, Israeli and French intelligence all have come to the same conclusion: Assad’s forces used chemical weapons to massacre civilians in August. And the president has now decided to let Congress decide whether Assad has crossed a red line!
This latest avoidance of concrete action weakens other presidential avowals. The president has repeatedly promised that Iran won’t be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Was that promise also made as a way to take pressure off the president? If Iran does develop nukes, will the president defer to Congress when it comes to making a move?
But now the president has to realize that this latest dodging of responsibility will likely be the last one. What if Congress — a Republican Congress, don’t forget — decides not to support military action in Syria? It is unlikely that the president would contravene the wishes of Congress.
There will be ramifications beyond Obama looking like a president who made a threat and didn’t carry it out. A terrible crime has been perpetrated by the use of chemical weapons — and no one is being held accountable.
What is the root cause as to why Obama has made threats that are not being fulfilled, and why he has drawn red lines that have become “lines in the sand”?
The reason the president has waffled, backtracked and sidestepped from any action in Syria is that the American people have lost faith in presidents leading them to war. Americans supported Lyndon Johnson’s costly foray into Vietnam, only to learn that they were lied to repeatedly about the scope and direction of the war. Americans were gung-ho on the invasion in Iraq, only to discover that the pretext for the war — weapons of mass destruction — was nowhere to be found. Oops. They were told that the war in Afghanistan was the right war, but if it was, then why are American troops withdrawing while the Taliban is still killing civilians and soldiers?
Americans have become cynical and less trusting of their leaders. They have become smart enough to know that lobbing a few cruise missiles into Assad’s backyard won’t solve anything, except make for a temporary spike in the president’s approval rating. They know that dismantling Assad’s regime would very possibly lead to chaos and the thriving of jihadist movements. They know that behind all the mayhem in Syria are powerful and ruthless players: Iran, Russia and China. Americans want to know: with more than 100,000 dead in Syria, why get involved now? They want to make sure all the implications of military involvement have been considered.
The president should have addressed all these concerns. If he really believes in his “Right Makes Might” doctrine, he should have convinced the American people during the last two years that the unpunished use of chemical weapons would be a horrific precedent in world history.
If Congress decides on inaction in Syria, the president can’t use that as a credible excuse to allow the atrocities in Syria to continue.
In order for the president to enforce his doctrine of Right Makes Might, he has to ensure that Americans believe he is right in the first place.