Over the past week, the Obama administration has revealed a breathtakingly dysfunctional approach to the crisis in Syria that calls into question the fundamental seriousness and competence of US foreign policy formulation and execution. The glaring inadequacies of the Obama machinery, rooted in a bumbling, essentially ad-hoc approach, have served to create serial, unintended consequences that threaten to further undermine US credibility and prestige at a critical moment.
Thoughtful and effective policy requires intellectual rigor, discipline, coordination and above all, planning. Having laid down a “red line” on the use of WMD by Syria last year, it would not be beyond the scope of reason to believe that the NSC had been actively planning what a potential US response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons would look like, and what it would require. That would not only include the actual response scenarios, but critically, a private and fulsome dialogue with congressional leaders, close and continuous consultations with allies and “strategic competitors” alike, as well as a detailed communications plan for the Administration to make its case to the American people.
We have seen no evidence of any of that in recent days.
Instead, an Administration in its fifth year looks strangely clumsy, unsophisticated and amateurish in handling an issue that the President himself created over a year ago. The most basic questions regarding a potential US response seem unexamined or unresolved, leading to questionable policy justifications in public.
Speaking to the Syrian question yesterday, President Obama said that US action was necessary to hold the Assad regime accountable, and to demonstrate that global conventions against the use of chemical weapons were not toothless, a development that could embolden terrorist groups or other WMD possessing nation states.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but does the contemplated military action effectively deal with the problem? The answer is almost certainly no.
POTUS was at pains to point out the attacks will be limited in size, scope and duration. No boots on the ground. Mostly likely no aircraft requiring pilots. At its very best, the proposed action is purely symbolic. It is laughable to believe that Bashar Assad, who is clearly willing to destroy his country and kills tens of thousands of his people in order to protect his power will be much bothered by an attack so specifically telegraphed by the US.
Let’s be candid. The proposed strike is not really about deterring Assad, but rather about President Obama’s crumbling credibility. He drew the red line in Syria without thinking it through, and when Assad called his bluff, the Administration had effectively boxed itself into a corner with few good choices. Threats are only as effective as the perceived willingness to carry them out. If you have to start shooting to restore credibility, you’ve already lost the argument. An effective, coherent, articulated and serious foreign policy girds credibility, and in so doing, diminishes the need for actual combat as words speak as loudly as guns. Weakness, vacillation and uncertainty are poison to credibility, as they have been with the Administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis from the beginning, and more broadly with the Obama foreign policy in the Middle East.
But in the headlong rush to re-establish Obama’s credibility by all but confirming the intention to strike Syria, the machinery of policy deliberation and coordination was left in the dust.
A prudent policy would have engaged stakeholders – the UN, NATO allies, congressional leaders, the American people - well before any public threat of imminent action was made. Despite Russian and Chinese obstruction at the UN, the General Assembly has every reason to take the Syrian use of WMD seriously as it is a clear-cut violation of international law. UN credibility is on the line here too. And clearly Britain and France have an interest in supporting international law, but require time to go through their internal political processes.
But the “fire-aim-ready” Obama approach didn’t leave time for any of that.
As a result, you get an epic parliamentary slap in the face, as Britain’s David Cameron did, when he lost a vote on proposed British participation in an allied military action in Syria - the first time such an event has taken place since Parliament brought down the government of Lord North in 1782, clearing the way for an end to the American revolution.
With the Obama approach, you get an Arab League that refuses to endorse military action, denying regional legitimacy to a strike.
With the Obama approach, you get a public, tired by more than a decade of war, that has no ready context from the Administration to evaluate a military strike on Syria, and fears an entangling involvement as a result.
It’s an all around mess. And POTUS made it worse yesterday with yet another, after-the-fact pivot.
Into this already combustible situation, the President decided to submit the proposed military strike to a congressional vote. This not only delays military action, giving Assad the gift of time to hide or harden any positions or equipment that even the limited POTUS strike could target, it also ignites volatile separation of powers questions that will no doubt have a bigger, longer term impact.
It is a testament to Obama’s reckless unilateralism over the past four years that even his limited military plan for Syria - akin to those that were carried out by his predecessors solely under their authority as Commanders in Chief, with support of the legislative branch – would spark congressional demands that a vote be required at all. And in agreeing to a congressional debate, Obama unexplainably sets a precedent that substantially circumscribes the power of future POTUS’ to carry out their responsibilities as the nation’s top military official.
Worse from a practical stand point, having committed America to an attack, the congressional vote is not assured. The Senate will likely provide the President with the authority he seeks. The House is a different matter entirely. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, opposed to the attack, have formed a “strange bedfellows” partnership that could make a House vote unusually close.
And what happens if the House votes down military action like the British Parliament?
Obama and his State Department have both said that the President has the authority to attack, derived from his power as Commander-in-Chief and would act accordingly. But if that’s true, then what’s is the point of submitting military action to a vote? Why compromise your successors authority? Why set off a balance of powers fight? Why complicate your military plan, which grows more stale and ineffective by the day?
It is bewildering.
Indeed, can anyone advising the President believe that ordering a military strike against Syria, in defiance of a congressional vote, over the opposition of the vast majority of the American people, without allied military support or international/regional political agreement would be a good thing for Obama or the country? Yet, these are the forces that the President has set in motion to enable a brief and ultimately pointless military action, designed above all else to restore his credibility, which he himself frittered away through denial and inaction.
This would be comedy if it wasn’t so tragic.