Making a Virtue Out of a Necessity

The four reasons it was inevitable that Obama would go to Congress on Syria.

Confused about President Obama's foreign policy on Syria? Worried that the president is sending conflicting messages to our allies and adversaries, setting bad precedents that will erode presidential authority, and undermining American credibility?

By most accounts, you should be.

In the course of the same statement in the Rose Garden last weekend, the president made a compelling case for military action against Syria and then, in a dramatic pivot, put it all at risk by promising to seek authorization from Congress. In doing so, he raised the very real risk of being Cameronized.

But in reality, the turn is not so much a flip-flop as it is a reflection of the president's strategic understanding of the cruel, unchangeable realities he faces on Syria. Those who are urging him to push ahead unilaterally or mount a sustained campaign to tip the battlefield balance aren't being honest with themselves about where public opinion is on military intervention, the nature of the Syrian crisis, and just how bad U.S. options really are.

By having a congressional debate and resolution authorizing military action in Syria, the president is trying to make a virtue out of a necessity. Here are four reasons why the Rose Garden about-face was inevitable and necessary, however risky.

(1) There's not much support at home, or abroad. "It is a terrible thing," FDR told speechwriter Samuel Rosenman in 1937 after the tepid response to the president's quarantine speech in Chicago, "to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead, and to find no one there."

Obama is no FDR. I shudder at the comparison. But he does face a similar problem. The Brits have bailed; the U.N. isn't an option; there will be no NATO consensus and action like there was in Libya; and the U.S. public is largely skeptical of military intervention. So the president is not only a reluctant warrior with a set of bad options, he's a lonely one, too. When France is your only ally, you know something's not quite right with the world.

It makes sense, then, for Obama to seek a show of legislative support. And given both his record emphasizing the importance of going through Congress and his risk-averse temperament on foreign policy, we should have seen this coming. That so many people were surprised by the Rose Garden bombshell is an indication that his critics and supporters alike were seeing his world their way, not through the lens of the guy making the decisions.

Make no mistake, too: U.S. policy on Syria is the president's and has been for the past two years. The gap between Secretary of State John Kerry's moral outrage and hawkish temperament and the president's inherent hesitancy to act is on full display every time the two speak on Syria. That the president made this decision apparently without consulting Kerry, the public face of U.S. Syria policy who also has long experience with Congress, speaks for itself. It is Obama who's running the show.

(2) It's Iraq, stupid. The idea that this is just a debate on the merits of what to do about Syria is another misreading of the situation. I'm not sure we can even have a real debate on the merits of Syria qua Syria, because the ghost of the Iraq debacle is working overtime, much as it did in the British parliamentary debate last week.

Too many want to ignore Iraq or minimize its impact. But it's just not reasonable to expect the country to move on, seek closure, and ignore the discretionary and ill-advised nature of that war, which is among the United States' longest and most profitless conflicts. It is also wrong to assume Iraq -- or Afghanistan, for that matter -- doesn't provide much of the context in which the Syria debate is taking place.

As I've written before, boots on the ground is a fear; but the real parallel between Iraq and Syria is the wooly-headed way in which means and ends have been conceived. More specifically, they have spurred the question of what purpose American military power is meant to serve, and how precisely it has or can achieve enduring political goals in foreign lands riven with sectarian hatreds and history's traumas.

Iraq informs everything the president does; he is, after all, the extricator-in-chief, for whom getting America out of bad wars and avoiding new ones is a strategic goal. He does not want to repeat recent history, and that's where the Congress calculus comes in.

(3) There are only bad or worse options. For two years against the backdrop of more than 100,000 reported dead, a refugee problem that has taken its toll in the millions, and the regime's use of SCUD missiles and chemical weapons against civilians, Obama has willfully refused to militarize the U.S. role in Syria. Had it not been for his own "red line" and the largest single use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, we wouldn't be where we are today.

Obama has concluded that even if he had Superman, Batman, and the Wolverine in his Cabinet, the U.S. could not end the civil war or fix Syria. That point is in almost every public discussion of the subject. To what extent he's personally troubled by the woulda-coulda-shoulda trope that, had the U.S. intervened a year ago, everything would be better is unknown. Syria was a mess then; admittedly, it's a bigger mess today.

But the dynamics that have put the Syrian civil war beyond resolution for now were in place then: a divided, distracted, and self-interested international community that won't or can't define a common strategy; a sectarian powder keg that predated the Arab Spring; an inchoate opposition to a dictator; and a minority regime willing to do just about anything to survive.

Under these circumstances, Obama has been risk-averse not because he's flawed, morally obtuse, weak, or traumatized. It's because he sees no real options and refuses to buy into the happy talk about this terrific military option or that. We couldn't fix Iraq with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground and trillions expended; and we can't fix Syria from the air.

The president knows this, and that going to Congress and making it a partner and party to the uncertainties of the Syria situation will help distribute some of the risk of limited action. If strikes go badly, Obama will take the hit. But it would be much worse if he plunged ahead without public or congressional support.

(4) The president doesn't want to rush toward disaster. I've written elsewhere that Obama has three options on Syria: do nothing; do everything; and or choose a middle way I call muddle through. The first is unconscionable and would lead to hanging a closed-for-the-season sign on U.S. credibility for the remainder of Obama's term. The second is reckless and would result both in an open-ended commitment and most likely to America owning Syria in some fashion. The third option -- the so-called "limited strike" -- could easily prove ineffective and thus carries risk, too.

We should be under no illusions that the president is enthusiastic about the effectiveness of option three, which he now favors. On the contrary, I suspect he has deep doubts about it, particularly the idea that a so-called limited strike would deter Assad from using chemical weapons and degrade his capacity to do so.

Once military action starts, whole new worlds of potential disasters open up. The pressure and expectation to strike again increase with each new horror Assad inflicts, either with chemical or unconventional weapons. A tit-for-tat escalatory cycle kicks in, whereby the U.S. is drawn in deeper without producing quick or determinative results. Washington gets into a proxy war with Iran, Hezbollah, the Russians, and a Syrian regime that will do just about anything to survive. And who are America's partners in such a campaign? The Israelis, Saudis, Qataris, and the jihadist groups on the ground -- each with its own agenda? What a collection of allies.

Because of these uncertainties, a congressionally mandated authorization for the use of force could help the president by bounding U.S. actions. The president's critics may call it hiding behind Congress; I'd call it developing limits so that the U.S. hopefully doesn't get sucked into a rabbit hole. We can't afford it. Let Congress say so and make disaster less likely.

THAT BRINGS US to where we are today. Stripped of allies, arguments, and an overpowering logic and vital national interest to create a sustained military strategy that would end Syria's civil war, the president is seeking Congressional backing for the still-risky military option he is prepared to implement.

It is a risky gamble, for sure. But not, as some believe, because it's a cosmic turning point in the debate over the War Powers Resolution; a wholesale abdication of presidential authority; or a dangerous precedent-setter that will turn Obama into a potted plant for the remainder of his term when it comes to military action against Iran. The notion that presidents should always act unilaterally so as not to diminish their own power, as the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein told me, can be counterproductive and dangerous. In the future, if the president has a clear and compelling case to use force, particularly if there's urgency, he'll retain the power and authority to act, regardless of what happens next week on Capitol Hill.

Since the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons two weeks ago and Obama's Rose Garden speech, the president has created a steady drumbeat that he's ready, able, and willing to strike Syria. Through both his statements as well as Kerry's, the president has cast the need for military action in highly principled terms. More than that, the amount of loose talk -- on and off the record -- about the nature of an impending the strike has virtually made it one of the most telegraphed and well-advertised moves in the history of warfare. Moreover, the 24/7 media environment, with its graphics about naval movements, target sets, and instant analysis of Syria's chemical weapons facilities, has made what is still only possible seemingly real.

As this drumbeat continues, a limited strike approved by Congress is the least undesirable option in comparison with doing nothing or trying to do too much, and doing either alone. The real problem now for the president -- and for the rest of us -- is the one that has made him wary of militarizing America's role from the beginning: what to do the day after an attack and how to prevent the slide toward even greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian trap. And that has much more to do with Assad's reaction and the uncertainties flowing from a brutal and seemingly never-ending civil war than from the vagaries of a partisan and suspicious Congress.  

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

The Limits of Action

Let's face it: Obama has limited interest, limited options, and limited reasons to get involved in Syria.

By now, President Barack Obama has almost certainly decided what kind of military strike he intends to launch against Syria -- and he probably also has a pretty good idea of when it will happen.

Indeed, Obama is on the verge of doing something he's willfully tried to avoid for the last two and a half years: putting America in the middle of a nasty, brutal, and complex Syrian civil war.

And because the president is one very smart guy, a methodical intellect, and lawyer-in-chief, I expect he's rigorously grappled with every angle, dimension, and nuance of the Syrian problem.

But just in case he hasn't, here are three core questions that need answering about the military action the president is about to authorize.

1. Q: What are U.S. objectives in Syria?

A: Pretty limited.

You know the old adage: When you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. After more than two years of civil war, what are the Obama administration's real objectives in Syria -- the ones it's truly prepared to invest in?

Is it to play the lead role in stopping the Syrian civil war and become the dominant architect in replacing the Bashar al-Assad regime with a democratic polity run by the pro-Western opposition? Keep in mind, the United States couldn't do that in Afghanistan and Iraq with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground and trillions of dollars expended. And we can't even manage to bring significant influence to bear in Egypt, where we've had a close, 40-year relationship with a military that's now running the country.

If the United States is not building democracy, then is it or should it be immersed in the Levant's Great Game -- trying to turn the Syria crisis into a broad Manichean struggle with Hezbollah and Iran in order to weaken the latter, halt its nuclear program, and crush the so-called Shiite crescent that stretches from Tehran to Beirut?

I saw a version of this movie in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration made the wrong-headed Cold War calculation that defeating Syria in Lebanon would be a blow to the Russians and tried to work with the Israelis and the Christian Phalange to bring that about. The entire Lebanon policy proved to be a failure in part because U.S. policymakers persisted in seeing Lebanon, Israel, and Syria as part of some great power game when in fact it was all about local politics and regional balance of power.

All this talk of grand strategies, threatening arcs, and hordes of Shiite and Sunni extremists reflects the view -- just like in Lebanon during the 1980s -- that the Syrian crisis is going to produce some clear winner in the end. But Syria is much more likely to morph into a decentralized polity where Alawites, Kurds, and Sunnis continue to struggle with each other and with al Qaeda-type extremists in semi-autonomous and dysfunctional enclaves for years to come.

So if there is no clear or definitive end game, what is the president's plan? I suspect it's to try to make a difference where the United States can -- commensurate with its other priorities and obligations -- on a variety of fronts: including the humanitarian side (as the largest aid contributor), the political side (as the most active Western power engaging with the Syrian opposition), the military side (by providing limited amounts of lethal assistance and facilitating more through other powers), and the diplomatic side (by continuing to pressure the Russians to leverage Assad into a political transition -- see Geneva 1.0 and maybe 2.0). Though with the cancellation of planned talks with the Russians this week, the Geneva approach seems to be all but over -- for now.

Indeed, at the end of the day, the president's bottom line is to restore some credibility when it comes to his own red lines on chemical weapons and keep on the right side of history in the face of the largest deployment of those weapons since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds and Iranians.

None of this is either emotionally or morally satisfying; nor has it been very effective against the backdrop of the carnage in Syria. But the president really does need to decide what he wants to -- and can -- accomplish, particularly as he considers a more direct military strike. Military action to punish Assad and possibly deter further use of chemical weapons will make Obama's point; the question is whether it will make a difference when it comes to changing the situation on the ground.

2. Q: Does a military strike serve U.S. interests?

A: Yes, but very imperfectly.

The context of the Syrian situation and the president's broader goals there should guide how he uses force. Military power is a means to an end. That correlation is never exact, precise, or certain. But the president needs to get as close as he can to identifying clear objectives and making sure he has the capacity to carry them out. It's that lesson -- not the cautionary tale about boots on the ground -- that's worth applying to Syria. What is it precisely that a military strike, campaign, or war is designed to accomplish? How will it shape the political endgame the United States is trying to achieve?

The major challenge in Syria involves chemical weapons. After all, that's why the president is reportedly close to authorizing a military strike. But the United States must also contend with a fragmenting state that's spewing sectarian violence, hemorrhaging refugees, offering up opportunities for Sunni and Shiite extremists, and spreading instability to its neighbors.

Which facet of the Syrian problem will Obama's military action address? On the one hand, a one-off strike to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again -- no matter how punishing -- won't impact the broader course of the war. On the other, the president has repeatedly indicated that he isn't ready to commit to a sustained and integrated military campaign -- arming the rebels, implementing a no-fly zone, and carrying out intensive strikes on Assad's forces and infrastructure -- that would tilt the balance decisively in the favor of the rebels.

Anthony Cordesman and others are already making the argument that using force is a necessary but not sufficient response to Assad's use of chemical weapons. By itself, military action does nothing to address the broader humanitarian, strategic, and moral disaster that Syria has become. Indeed, Obama's critics maintain that he's all tactics and guided by no real strategy. What happens after D-Day plus 1 may well reinforce that view.

Many outside government will argue that if the United States is going to use military force, it must go well beyond symbolic warnings. Assad has crossed Obama's "red line" and the United States must abandon its caution and launch a sustained military campaign. If more drastic action isn't taken now, they argue, Assad will commit another horror sooner or later -- whether it is with conventional or unconventional weapons. He is incorrigible and must go. The time for talking has passed and Obama needs to lead the way in taking him down. And so it goes.

Now isn't the time to identify all of the unknowns and risks inherent in such a calculation. Getting rid of Assad by no means guarantees stability, the end of civil war, or a victory for the pro-Western opposition in Syria. Even assuming the United States can marshal some international consensus -- perhaps in the form of a NATO- or Arab League-backed coalition-- to provide political and legal cover, there are no guarantees that a sustained air campaign would work quickly or at all. In Operation Desert Storm, for example, coalition air forces flew 38,000 sorties against the Iraqi Army and did tremendous damage. But Saddam Hussein's military still fought tenaciously and retained the capacity later to crush both Shiite and Kurdish revolts.

The Balkan precedent -- a favorite these days, invoked as a model for a Syrian intervention both in terms of mobilizing consensus outside of the U.N. Security Council and the effective use of air power -- also provides a cautionary tale.

In 78 days, NATO flew 3,400 sorties and yet failed to enable the Kosovo Liberation Army to make real headway against Serbian forces. Analysts Edward Joseph and Elizabeth O'Bagy point out that the Bosnia precedent is far from perfect. Three factors existed there that made success more likely: a far less fractious opposition, a sense of exhaustion among the sides, and a degree of ethnic separation that facilitated a political deal. None of these factors are present in Syria today. Moreover, Slobodan Milosevic was an opportunist who was ready and willing to save himself by sacrificing hardline Bosnian and Croatian Serbs. There is nothing to suggest that Assad would be willing to take a similar way out.

Where Joseph and O'Bagy do see commonality between the Balkans and Syria is in U.S. ownership -- or lack thereof. And this gets to the heart of any military option the president chooses. Having willfully avoided real ownership of the Syrian problem to date, is he really willing to own it now? Because direct military action -- whether alone or with allies -- is encumbering and filled with uncertainties no matter how controlled or deliberate. Is Obama ready to get stuck with the Syrian tar baby? Which brings us to question three. 

3. Q: How important is Syria to President Obama?

A: So far, not very.

There are a lot of very smart people who disagree. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell has actually asserted that Syria is the gravest threat to U.S. national security. But you don't need to go that far to see the crisis for what it is -- a breeding ground for extremism, sectarian violence, and proliferation and use of chemical weapons.

The Syrian civil war is a moral, strategic, and human disaster. About that there can be little doubt. Some are already saying "I told you so" -- that Syria is only getting worse and eventually Obama will have no choice but to act.

So why not draw up a real strategy and lead now? Why not organize the region and our European allies, pretend you're Bush 41 and Assad is Saddam Hussein, accept some risk, and where you lead others will follow?

I've argued repeatedly that Syria is a trap, and that given the president's priorities and legacy -- helping the middle class, not fixing the Middle East -- he's been right to be cautious. This isn't Iraq in 1990. It's a cruel and bloody civil war that America can't end, and it shouldn't be stuck with the enormous bill for cleaning up after the fact. Moreover, it's not as if the broader region is a poster child for stability. It's all a mess.

Whatever decision the president makes, he must lay out an honest rationale for why he's acting. He cannot circumscribe U.S. actions without undercutting American resolve in front of Assad and his supporters. But he also cannot leave open the possibility -- unless this is where he wants to go -- that the United States is on the verge of a new campaign to save Syria. He must talk about why it's in America's interest to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons, but also make clear why Syria is beyond his capacity to save. This isn't just idle chatter; it's the explanation of his policy toward Syria that for too long he's failed to articulate.

Too often, American presidents have cast their policies in the idealized rhetoric of U.S. values. And while values and interests sometimes overlap, fixing Syria's broken house by assuming the lion's share of responsibility for getting rid of Assad and supporting whatever government replaces him is neither a vital American value nor a vital national interest. Obama knows it and so do the vast majority of the American people who are against military invention. The president is just having a hard time admitting it.