Everything about President Obama’s decision to ask Congress to approve military action in Syria is terrific—except for the action he’s asking it to approve.
By going to Congress, Obama is doing something profound. He’s acknowledging that the rules of the foreign-policy game must change. Over the past 40 years, America’s presidents have gutted two key restraints on their ability to go to war. In 1973, Richard Nixon created an all-volunteer military, thus confining the direct burdens of war to a small subset of Americans who were legally barred from political protest and virtually ensuring that nothing as noisy and chaotic as the anti-Vietnam movement would occur again. Then, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush cut out Congress—launching invasions of Grenada and Panama on their own authority despite efforts by Congress itself (the War Powers Act) and the framers of the Constitution (Article One, Section Eight) to make certain it couldn’t happen.
The result was the creation of a “hubris bubble” in foreign policy analogous to the one that grew during the same stretch of time on Wall Street. Like the titans of Wall Street, America’s presidents kept making bets that paid off: Grenada, Panama, Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo. And the more they did, the more dismissive they became of the need for public oversight. It all went swimmingly. Until Iraq, when the deregulation of presidential war-making powers produced the foreign policy equivalent of a stock market crash.
Many in the foreign-policy elite, like their equivalents on Wall Street, want to continue acting autonomously, as if the crash never occurred. But to his credit, Obama senses the danger of continuing along the same path. It’s not just that Americans are “weary of war,” although they are, and with good reason. It’s that they are weary of outsourcing decisions about war to a foreign-policy elite that, in both parties, has proved incompetent and dishonest over the past decade. (And, yes, I was a part of that. I wrote a book about it.)
It was precisely the declining faith in foreign-policy elites that helped Obama—who as an Illinois state senator opposed the Iraq war—defeat Hillary Clinton. “For years,” wrote Samantha Power during the campaign, “Washington’s conventional wisdom has held that candidates for President are judged not by their wisdom, but rather by their adherence to hackneyed rhetoric that make little sense beyond the Beltway.” Obama was elected to challenge that, which is exactly what he’s doing now.
Obama’s hawkish critics claim that you can’t run an empire that way. But they’re wrong. At a time when America’s coffers are virtually empty and its foreign-policy elites lack public trust, continuing to wage wars without a public buy-in is the equivalent of creating a new batch of credit-default swaps and hoping the market never again goes down. By accepting public oversight, Obama is doing something both humble and wise. He’s asking for Congress’s help in ensuring that America doesn’t fail again.
The problem, from Obama’s perspective, is that Congress may decide that the best way to make certain military action in Syria does not fail is not to launch it at all. And Obama’s arguments for why America must attack are fairly weak. He’s like a student asked to write his own final exam who, with great integrity, crafts one so hard that he ends up flunking himself.
Obama has offered two arguments for military action. The first is that if dictators can use chemical weapons and get away with it, the norm against their use will collapse. The problem is that it’s not at all clear why Bashar al-Assad deserves to be punished for killing roughly 1,000 Syrians in a particular way but not killing upward of 100,000 overall. At best, he and other dictators will draw the lesson that they need to commit their butchery in other ways. At worst, Assad will decide that a one- or two-day American strike that does not aim to shift the balance of forces in Syria’s civil war isn’t much of a deterrent at all. (To the contrary, it may prove a public-relations coup.) “Should the regime find itself fighting for its survival,” warns the International Crisis Group, it may well use chemical weapons again—thus undermining Obama’s effort at reaffirming international norms and dragging America deeper into Syria’s war.
Obama’s second argument for military action is that, having warned Assad not to use chemical weapons, he must act to maintain America’s credibility, especially with Iran. But a small mountain of political science literature shows that policymakers exaggerate how much their reputation for fortitude matters in future crises. America’s European allies did not lose faith in our NATO promises because we abandoned South Vietnam. For the most part, they thought America foolish to commit in the first place to South Vietnam, a country they knew mattered far less to America’s prosperity and security than did West Germany or France. Similarly, Iran’s leaders are sophisticated enough to realize that the United States has far more riding on preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon than on punishing a Syrian chemical attack.
As horrifying as it was, Assad’s reported chemical weapons attack is a sideshow. The really important question—morally and geopolitically—is how to end Syria’s civil war in a way that leaves its different communities safe from slaughter. If there’s a case for American military action, it’s to weaken Assad on the battlefield so he decides it is in his interest to accept a diplomatic deal that ends the killing and (eventually) ushers him out of power. Were Obama arguing for that kind of intervention, he’d be inviting Congress into a crucial debate about America’s strategic interests and moral principles in a Middle East that’s veering out of control. Instead, he’s establishing an extremely important principle about the public’s role in determining when America fights. But he’s doing so with a substantively weak case, and thus launching a battle in Congress he may well lose. And if he does lose, the political pressure on him to forgo a Syria strike will likely prove overwhelming.