Showdowns and Shutdowns

Why the Syria debate on Capitol Hill could get tripped up over partisan fiscal battles.

In his quite stunning speech on Saturday afternoon, the president was right about the letter of the law and the spirit of the Constitution. The War Powers Act does not require the president to get congressional permission before launching cruise missiles at Syria -- but if we are still engaged in military action 60 days later, it is another matter. Yet the fact remains that the spirit of the Constitution would be violated if the president acted unilaterally at a time when there is no urgency or emergency. War powers are deeply entangled between and among the branches, even if America has had a slew of conflicts and long-lasting, all-out wars that never got a declaration of war from Congress. In that sense, it is better, in the long run, to assert appropriate presidential prerogatives and still bow in the direction of the legislative branch.

Given the scope of the president's proposed actions, the delay until perhaps mid-September is not apt to be particularly consequential. Contrary to what critics like Charles Krauthammer assert, international intelligence on Syria is strong enough that we can likely track any significant movement of chemical weapons or other materiel; and the ability we have to strike Syrian air bases and command-and-control facilities means that we can -- at any time -- inflict deep damage on Assad's regime and make it clear that there is a real and meaningful penalty for despicable conduct.

The risk here comes from other quarters. Let us assume the president did this both because he believes that going to Congress is the right thing to do, and because having a congressional imprimatur would not only add to the legitimacy of any action, but would also deter or at least dilute any congressional second-guessing. If that is true, there is an assumption that Congress will accept the White House resolution.

To be sure, there are solid reasons for that assumption. When forced off the sidelines, members of Congress have to move beyond easy criticism to confronting the harsh reality of the consequences of inaction for American credibility and prestige -- not just for Barack Obama. The fact that the resolution is drawn narrowly, along with the powerful case Secretary of State John Kerry made and the power of the president's pledge, make those consequences severe for Congress as well. For all its bluster, and the frequent demands by congressional leaders and members to apply the War Powers Resolution, when faced with a requirement to act, Congress has always blinked and deferred to the president.

For several reasons, however, this time is much dicier. One, Congress and the country are war weary after far more than a decade of debilitating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and skeptical, if not cynical, about any promises to keep the next one very limited. Two, there is a new and powerful bipartisan coalition developing on foreign and national security policy, pairing liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans who are want deep cuts in defense spending, a serious curtailment of aggressive intelligence gathering, and a retrenchment of American power and involvement abroad.

But there are two other reasons that spell even more serious trouble for the president. First is the deep and growing tribalism that has taken over American politics -- leaving foreign and national security policy practically the only areas where there is a bipartisan coalition, but in this case the wrong one. That may combine in a toxic fashion with the almost-uncontrollable desire by a large number of Republicans to oppose the president no matter what, undermine his policies, sabotage the laws enacted during his tenure, and inflict failure on him wherever possible. If that sentiment prevails for only a sliver of Republican lawmakers who otherwise might accept the resolution, it is trouble.

Then there is the overload of business on the congressional agenda when the two houses return on Sept. 9 -- with only nine legislative days scheduled for action in the month. We have serious confrontations ahead on spending bills and the debt limit, as the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and the debt ceiling approaches just a week or two thereafter. Before the news that we would drop everything for an intense debate on whether to strike militarily in Syria, Congress-watchers were wondering how we could possibly deal with the intense bargaining required to avoid one or more government shutdowns and/or a real breach of the debt ceiling, with devastating consequences for American credibility and the international economy.

Beyond the deep policy and political divisions, Republican congressional leaders will likely use both a shutdown and the debt ceiling as hostages to force the president to cave on their demands for deeper spending cuts. Avoiding this end-game bargaining will require the unwavering attention of the same top leaders in the executive and legislative branches who will be deeply enmeshed in the Syria debate. The possibility -- even probability -- of disruptions caused by partial shutdowns could complicate any military actions. The possibility is also great that the rancor that will accompany the showdowns over fiscal policy will bleed over into the debate about America and Syria.

A full and robust conversation about what to do in the face of Bashar al-Assad's unspeakably evil actions -- with powerful interventions by President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry -- might instead have a positive impact, in the same way that the deeply emotional extended congressional debate during the George H.W. Bush presidency about going into the first Iraq war was a high point for the legislative branch. This president might, in fact, prevail with bipartisan support in both houses. That might even provide a modest lubricant for movement to avoid the insanity of government shutdowns or a debt ceiling breach. But the risks of more damaging outcomes are uncomfortably high.

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Questions and Airstrikes

Why Congress needs to think hard about Obama’s Syria plan.

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.

Because Assad clearly sees this as a life-and-death battle, Congress should ask the administration what they intend to do if the Syrian regime remains defiant. Obama has tried to assure a war-weary American public that the strikes are a one-off. But if the purposes are deterrence and to enforce a norm against chemical weapons use, defiance leaves America only worse off. My sense is that Assad will be likely to avoid using chemical weapons again because he fears escalation -- but like most analysts I also thought he'd avoid a massive, obvious use in the first place. Assad may also play it safe in terms of fomenting terrorism outside of Syria against the United States or its allies, but again his chemical weapons use and fear for his regime's survival suggests that he may take foolish risks. Simply put, we should admit we don't fully understand how Assad makes decisions. So Congress needs to ask the administration what it has in store if the worst case materializes.

Assad's friends, particularly Iran but also Russia, should also be part of the discussion. Both may increase support for the Syrian regime in the face of an American attack. So while Assad's forces may take a pounding, he may gain new arms, new fighters, and more financial support. Iranian officials have even talked loudly if vaguely that someone, somewhere, might retaliate in response to a U.S. strike.

The question of credibility should also be prominent in the debate. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry raised expectations that America would strike Syria. Is there a price to backing down? It is easy to doomsay and claim that every American enemy will become emboldened. But hyperbole aside, escalating the rhetoric and backing down in the face of, well, nothing suggests to U.S. foes that Washington has little stomach for future fights.

Finally, though I am skeptical U.S. strikes will change the military balance, Congress should also explore whether we are prepared for "success." Jihadists are running amok in Syria, and the U.S.-backed moderate opposition is weak. American programs to strengthen the jihadists militarily, which received only lukewarm administration support and (ahem, ahem) stalled in Congress until July, are barely off the ground. Should Assad fall, Syria would probably collapse into chaos and radicals would control much of the country.

The debate in the weeks to come should be broad. Legislators and the administration should discuss the strategic and military implications of a congressional role and think about the long-term effects of any U.S. military action. In the end, a healthy debate might find that a middle ground -- a strike that hits only a few targets and is of limited duration -- may be the worst of all options. To make a difference in the long-term, the United States needs to do more, particularly with the opposition. And if it won't do more, then staying out altogether may be the best option.