Barack Obama has a bad case of Syria déjà vu.
Nearly one year after he stood at the brink of ordering military action against Syria — but said he’d only step across if Congress agreed — the president finds himself in an eerily similar situation.
Then, as now, the world has been horrified by violence in the region. Then, as now, the drumbeat of increased military operations has grown louder. And then, as now, a president whose political rise was partly defined by his opposition to interventions abroad must decide whether to escalate American involvement, either on his own or with permission from Congress…
Members of Congress are feeling déjà vu of their own — now, like last year, they are worried about the prospect of a tough vote to authorize an attack in Syria. Defense advocates already complain that Obama has done nothing to sell his plan to arm and train vetted Syrian rebels, and even some of his own allies worry he will put in a similarly lackluster effort if he decides to order an attack sooner.
President Obama wants to decide by the end of the week whether or not his war in Iraq against the Islamic State will expand to the group’s haven in eastern Syria. But nearly everything about the potential military campaign is still in flux, administration officials tell The Daily Beast—from the goals of the effort to the intelligence needed to carry it out.
ISIS’s murder of American photojournalist James Foley and its continued military expansion have pushed the administration into an urgent drive to take action against the Islamic extremists in Syria. Despite the new urgency, the plans for such a strike are far from complete. In a series of high-level meetings Tuesday—including one gathering of the Principals’ Committee, the administration’s top national security officials—White House staffers and cabinet secretaries alike struggled to come up with answers to basic questions about the potential strikes. Among the unresolved issues: whether the U.S. has reliable intelligence on ISIS targets in Syria; what the objectives and limits of the strikes would be; and how the administration would defend the action legally, diplomatically, and politically.
One huge unanswered question is whether the president will order the attacks, or whether he will ultimately balk, as he did this time last year after preparing for limited strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime. One administration official working on Syria policy said the purpose of the meetings Tuesday was “to convince one man, Barack Obama,” to follow through on the rhetoric and widen the aims of the war to include destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
Senior Pentagon officials have been conferring with the White House on hitting Islamic State targets just inside eastern Syria, from where the group launched an atrocity-filled offensive in mid-June that overran roughly half of Iraq and brought it to the outskirts of Baghdad, said two U.S. Defense officials.
The White House, however, has yet to request a formal proposal, said the Defense officials, who expressed frustration over what both separately called the administration’s “dithering.” They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly…
The officials compared the current situation to Obama’s hesitancy nearly one year ago to make good on a threat to attack Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal after what the United States and its allies charged were regime nerve gas attacks that killed hundreds of civilians.
The United States has begun to mobilize a broad coalition of allies behind potential American military action in Syria and is moving toward expanded airstrikes in northern Iraq, administration officials said on Tuesday…
As Mr. Obama considered new strikes, the White House began its diplomatic campaign to enlist allies and neighbors in the region to increase their support for Syria’s moderate opposition and, in some cases, to provide support for possible American military operations. The countries likely to be enlisted include Australia, Britain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, officials said.
The officials, who asked not to be named discussing sensitive internal deliberations, said they expected that Britain and Australia would be willing to join the United States in an air campaign. The officials said they also wanted help from Turkey, which has military bases that could be used to support an effort in Syria.
As U.S. involvement in Iraq deepens, Sen. Tim Kaine is refusing to let Congress off the hook without a vote on approving military operations against the Islamic State…
“I will always support the president when he takes action to protect American service members and diplomats. But I am calling for the mission and objectives for this current significant military action against ISIL to be made clear to Congress, the American people, and our men and women in uniform. And Congress should vote up or down on it.”…
“Congressional approval for military action is very challenging, and it’s contentious, and it’s supposed to be. While this often frustrates the executive, it is how the system is supposed to work. And when presidents follow the rule, it generally works out for the best,” Kaine said in a June floor speech.
The Hill quoted anonymous sources, who said it would be politically “stupid” for Obama to put Democratic Congress members in the position of having to vote for military action in Syria or Iraq. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who been pushing for vote, said, “The notion of, ‘Well, we don’t want to cast a hard vote before a midterm because it might be unpopular,’ that’s the job we volunteered for.”
Maddow imitated Congress’ position on the matter, saying, “Please let us keep complaining from the peanut gallery and throwing stuff. Please don’t actually make us be the decision makers on this, which the Constitution says we ought to be.”
On The Hill piece specifically, Maddow added, “It’s one of the biggest outbreaks of Democratic wuss-itude we’ve seen I think, in the press, in a long time. I understand why nobody put their names on those quotes. It’s sort of obscene.”
This time, with the midterm elections just over two months away, lawmakers may be even less inclined to take a politically risky vote on military action.
“I see no reason to come to Congress because, if he does, it’ll just become a circus,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said this week…
The clearest basis for military action would be a United Nations Security Council resolution. However, Obama is unlikely to get that authorization given that Russia, the biggest benefactor of Syrian President Bashar Assad, would likely wield its veto power unless military action were coordinated with the Syrian government.
Some international law experts argue that airstrikes could be justified as a matter of self-defense. Obama could argue that the Islamic State poses a threat to the U.S. and its allies from inside Syria, whose government is unwilling or unable to stop it.
Obama should seek congressional approval before ordering any strikes on Syria because the law compels him to do so, but that isn’t the only argument for a legislative vote:
— The legislature is in a better position than the executive branch to carry out the will of the American people, which ought to dictate United States foreign policy.
— A congressional debate can help to test the arguments for intervention, which may well be wanting given the dearth of public scrutiny they’ve gotten.
— Every two years, Americans decide whether to keep or oust their representatives in the House. Knowing where they stand on hugely consequential matters of national policy is integral to the American system functioning.
— A war to defeat ISIS would be a huge undertaking. Embarking without the support of the citizenry casts doubt on whether the country would see the effort through.
— It is dangerous to give a single man the power to take a nation to war without anyone being able to do a thing to stop him. It is, in fact, anti-Madisonian.
Politically palatable narrowness could be accomplished in four easy steps:
Authorize force only against ISIS. One criticism of the 2001 AUMF is that it identifies the enemy too broadly, allowing all manner of entities to come under its force authorization. Identifying IS specifically will attenuate this concern. And if Congress (or the President) worries about the authorization being extended by interpretation to associates of IS (as two administrations have now done with the 2001 AUMF), Congress can specify that associated forces are not included within the IS force authorization. If associates of ISIS present a dangerous threat, the President can always rely on Article II.
Authorize force only in Iraq and, if the President deems necessary, in Syria. One objection to the 2001 AUMF is that it lacks geographical limitation. To address this, Congress can simply limit the geographic scope of its authorization, perhaps to Iraq and Syria. If dangerous and threatening ISIS members show up in other countries, the President can still rely on Article II.
Make plain that the authorization doesn’t include the introduction of U.S. ground troops in either country. The President keeps mentioning this, and so it should not be a problem to put this limit in the authorization itself. And again, the President always has Article II as a basis to introduce Special Operations Forces, CIA operatives, and even ground troops in a true emergency. (Or Congress could go further and affirmatively ban the introduction of traditional ground troops, perhaps with an exception for emergency situations to protect U.S. lives.)
Place a time limit – a sunset clause – on the authorization.
A year ago, Obama sought approval from Congress to engage militarily in Syria, as Paul urges, but Congress balked. Facing stiff resistance from lawmakers of both parties, the matter never even came up for a vote.
According to Paul, that’s how the system is supposed to work.
“Think what would have happened had we seriously degraded Assad to the point where he was overrun, think who would be in charge of Syria right now?” Paul asked before answering his own rhetorical question: ”ISIS.” In conclusion, Paul said:
“So we are very lucky that the American people are much wiser than Hillary Clinton, and much wiser than the president. We got the president and Hillary Clinton to slow down, but Hillary Clinton was widely reported to be the chief person proposing that we get involved in Syria. But really the only person directly involved in bombing ISIS’s bases right now is the Syrian government—so for all their wrongs, we’re actually quite lucky we didn’t have regime change, because I think it is a very realistic prediction that, had we had that happen, that ISIS would be in charge of Syria. Really, Syria, with Assad and all this war, is somewhat of a counter to the power of ISIS.”
One problem with mounting a similar coalition—or even unilateral American action—against ISIS in Syria is precisely this question: Who benefits? Who, or what, would the war be fought for? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? He would be the biggest beneficiary, but he’s also a mass murderer (very awkward for Obama, who once said “Assad must go”) and Iran’s leading Shiite ally (unpalatable to the region’s Sunni leaders). As for the “moderate” anti-Assad rebels, they don’t seem to be an organized, or perhaps even organizable, force, and perhaps they never were. (If Obama had listened to his advisers and armed these rebels last year, it’s quite likely that the weapons would have wound up in ISIS arsenals by now, just like the U.S.-supplied armored vehicles that the Iraqi army abandoned at ISIS’s first onslaught.)…
After the surveillance and the intelligence assessments, Obama may launch airstrikes against ISIS convoys mounting on the Syrian-Iraqi border. But what would be the consequence of bashing ISIS well inside Syria? What would be our interests in doing so? Who would go in with us? Who would carry the burden of the fight and, even more, the cleanup afterward? (Not us, not likely!)…
It’s a phenomenal thing: Everybody hates ISIS—the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel. Nearly all Middle Eastern countries and their big-power backers (including Russia and probably China too) would like to see it crushed. And ISIS itself has no nation-state allies; it thrives on looting, ransom, and the sectarian or ideological divides that block its vast array of enemies from uniting. To the extent ISIS “wins,” if it really does turn a country or swath of territory into an Islamist state, its victory will stem not from its military strength or popular appeal, but from the political dysfunction and misguided moral purity of its foes.