President Barack Obama's surprising announcement that he will put off action on Syria until Congress weighs in offers a chance to consider, or reconsider, fundamental questions regarding a U.S. military strike on Syria. Congress should recognize that the president's decision to consult has costs and that a limited military strike is likely to accomplish little and could even make a bad situation worse.
Congress's first question should be about the president's claim that, "our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now." Yes, of course, the Syrian civil war still will be raging weeks from now, and the U.S. military will remain prepared to strike. But during those weeks the carnage will continue, with jihadists growing stronger among the opposition. The diplomatic moment created by Bashar al-Assad's massive use of chemical weapons on August 21 will fade as other concerns become prominent on the international agenda.
Legislators must be pleased to have a say, but they should also ask whether the delay in striking and the last-minute decision to put the use of force before Congress affects U.S. credibility on other issues. Will Israel believe America has its back if the president must wait for Congress to approve military action? Does any coercive threat regarding the use of force against Iran's nuclear program now come with the caveat that the United States would only strike after a congressional vote? Iran's mullahs will no doubt enjoy this fillip to democracy. In the end, the greater democratic legitimacy that comes from congressional support may make this worthwhile, but the decision is not cost free.
Beyond questions concerning Congress's role, the scale of the use of force should be a top concern. Politically, a limited bombing campaign that is of short duration and hits few targets is easy: after a few days of media buzz, the American people, and the world, will soon go back to ignoring a conflict they'd rather forget. Militarily, however, a short campaign will barely make a dent in the Syrian regime's hold on power or ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The regime has waged a life-and-death civil war for more than two years: 50 or so Tomahawks lobbed from the warships in the Mediterranean, though able to hit targets the rebels cannot, will not fundamentally alter the military balance.
Hitting chemical weapons storage areas has dangers, as some of the chemicals may be released in the process. So instead the United States may leave many stockpiles alone and go after regime bulwarks like elite forces and command-and-control sites, as well as air defense nodes. Destruction of these targets would be a real blow to Assad, though the administration would justify them as going after the broader infrastructure responsible for chemical use. But Assad is likely to see it as part of a broader strategy of regime change. So although the administration is trying to make this about chemical weapons, the Syrian regime will interpret it as a much broader strike.