The political press can sometimes struggle with a collectively short memory.
Recall that it was just under a year ago when the nation was engaged in a bitter debate over whether President Barack Obama should get to work imposing consequences on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for violating his “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in that country’s civil war.
The president had declared the norm-violating use of weapons of mass destruction on civilian and military targets a trigger for military action in the summer of 2012, but he was flagrantly ignored by Damascus. While it may have been necessary, going to war in Syria in order to preserve the international prohibition on the use of WMD in wartime was also deeply unpopular.
Just one day before Obama delivered a prime time address to the nation, ostensibly aimed at shoring up support for the mission in Syria, a Pew Research Center poll showed only 28 percent of the public supported airstrikes. A majority, 63 percent, opposed them with 45 percent saying they were strongly opposed to military action in Syria. It was bipartisan public opposition to intervention in Syria which prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to insist that airstrikes against Assad’s forces would be “unbelievably small.” You’d hardly notice them, he assured the public. They just wouldn’t listen.
When Moscow proposed a deal which would allow their client in Damascus to remain in power but would also relieve him of his chemical weapons stockpile, the administration was initially skeptical. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting,” Kerry told reporters in London in September of last year. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
Ultimately, Kerry would be proven correct. Syria did consent to surrendering its stockpiles of declared chemical weapons, but the WMD attacks on civilians using “undeclared” agents like chlorine gas continue to this day. No matter, the Obama administration reasoned. The public was firmly against going to war over philosophical matters like the violation of the norm barring the battlefield use of chemical weapons. Obama took the off-ramp provided by Russia.
But the president was already pursuing another means of extricating himself from his own obligation to impose consequences on Assad: The will of the people as evinced by the votes of their representatives in Congress. In late August, Obama demanded a vote from Congress authorizing an attack on Syria which would address “a serious danger to our national security” and “an assault on human dignity.” The president knew such a resolution was unlikely to pass, and he was right. The Senate Foreign Relations committee approved a resolution authorizing force in Syria, but the bill never even came up for a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Flash forward nearly one year, and the situation in the Middle East has deteriorated rapidly. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq now presents a present threat to global security and the same “human dignity” which Obama warned was jeopardized by Assad’s use of WMDs. Now, the threat to American national security is no longer theoretical. U.S. officials routinely warn that ISIS could execute attacks on Western targets from their safe haven in the Middle East and an American citizen was brutally beheaded as part of an ultimatum directed at Washington. Suddenly, congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria is no longer a White House priority.
On Monday, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd reported that the discussion in the White House “is now about targets” to strike in Syria, not whether Obama is authorized to mount such a campaign. Obama appealed to a rather flimsy justification to mount a broad air war inside Iraq by citing his constitutional authority to defend American assets and personnel threatened by ISIS in cities like Baghdad and Erbil. That justification did not extend to, for example, the Mosul Dam; a vital strategic target where the U.S. engaged in an air campaign successfully aimed at dislodging ISIS positions. If Obama engages in strikes inside Syria, his administration will be conceding that the anti-ISIS campaign is no longer strictly defensive in nature.
“If the U.S. can make the attack small enough, it may be able to get it through without having to get approval from Congress,” Todd said. “The concern is that lawmakers would not approve a large-scale assault in an election year given the short amount of time they’ll be in session.”
The MSNBC host noted that lawmakers could simply approve funding for Syria strikes as part of a continuing budget resolution to fund the government. While not especially honest with the American people, such a tactic would resolve a political problem for both the president and members of Congress alike.
This strategy stands in stark contrast to Obama’s approach to intervention in Syria one year ago, which was marked by Rose Garden pleas and a national address supposedly aimed at pressuring Congress into approving strikes inside Syria. The difference between these two episodes is painfully clear: Obama did not want to go to war in Syria in 2013 and still doesn’t, but he feels he has no choice but to do so today.
What a difference a year makes.