COMMENTARY | Is it a good idea for president Barack Obama to suddenly let Congress, that gridlocked group of greying grandmas and grandpas with a record-low public approval rating, decide whether or not the U.S. military should intervene against the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, which is allegedly using chemical weapons on its own civilians? As the White House presents Congress with evidence of Al-Assad’s atrocities, as explained by CNN, and Al-Assad’s regime mocks Obama’s deference to Congress to as a “retreat,” reports CBS, we must examine the calculus behind the president’s decision to refrain from using his executive order authority and instead heed the voice of the national legislature. Though legislators are pleased with Obama’s deference, and a public wary of another Iraq War scenario are applauding the president’s caution, is going to Congress the right move?
Several factors may be affecting Obama’s decision and must be considered when deciding whether or not deference to Congress on fast-moving geopolitical crises is wise.
First of all, one cannot ignore history. Undoubtedly, part of Obama’s deference to Congress comes from George W. Bush’s aggression in 2002 and 2003 leading up to the Iraq War. The Bush administration hawkishly pushed for “regime change” in Iraq and the forced removal of Saddam Hussein’s government despite widespread assertions that Iraq did not possess the weapons of mass destruction claimed by the White House. When WMDs were not found the Bush administration looked bad and the U.S. was perceived on the international stage as a hasty bully, quick to invade Iraq despite lack of convincing evidence.
In the case of Syria, however, the evidence of chemical weapon use against civilians appears overwhelming, which makes Obama’s hesitancy and deference misguided. Though it is clear that Obama wants to avoid appearing like his hawkish predecessor, his moving slowly may give the Al-Assad regime time to plan a defense. With few international leaders or groups believing that Al-Assad is anything but guilty, time is of the essence. Moving too slowly smacks of the world’s refusal to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s.
Secondly, Syria’s allies must be considered. Unlike Iraq in 2003, which was an international pariah after a dozen years of UN sanctions following the Gulf War, Syria has supporters, especially Iran, which was Iraq’s longtime foe. Russia, which would not be caught dead selling weapons to Iraq in ’03, has a far more cozy relationship with arms-purchaser Syria. Additionally, the U.S. does not have the level of international sympathy it enjoyed in 2003, when many nations were eager to help America seek justice for 9/11. The geopolitical chess board is much more complex in 2013 than in 2003.
With the international situation more complicated and less pro-America, Obama has good reason to seek a Congressional mandate to act against Syria’s ruling regime. If Obama can confidently say that his citizens, spoken for by their Congressmen, are behind removing Al-Assad’s WMDs he will have more ammo to stand up to foreign criticism.
Third, Obama’s political situation at home is important. The president is in his second term and it is too early for him to worry about championing a successor…meaning the decision on Syria is key to his legacy. He won a second term, the economy is improving, but 2016 is still far away. Syria, therefore, is front-and-center in the news cycle and on the history book pages for 2013. Obama will not be able to overshadow the issue with other goings-on at home or abroad.
The “legacy decision” that will help shape Obama’s reputation in history books is affected by the NSA digital data mining scandal, which has made many citizens increasingly wary of “big government.” Is Obama being cautious on Syria and letting Congress decide because he worries about being seen as an authoritarian “big government” president in the wake of NSAgate? This is troublesome. The president should be making decisions with a clear conscience, especially when lives hang in the balance, and should not be worrying about his presidential legacy. Part of the job of being president is to make tough, unpopular decisions because they are the right thing to do, regardless of past mistakes.
Fourth, the scope of the conflict and potential for escalation is an important bit of calculus. As mentioned before, Syria is not alone on the global stage. Iran has said it will support its controversial ally. If Syria is attacked by the U.S. and Iran leaps in to help Al-Assad’s regime, the temptation for America to back out of the conflict will be high. Perhaps Obama is seeking a Congressional mandate because it will reinforce the nation’s commitment to finish the fight against Al-Assad’s atrocities, even if the fight proves more than we anticipated.
This possibility raises delicate questions. Does the White House know something we citizens do not? Does intel indicate that Iran will indeed militarily support Al-Assad, including against U.S. forces directly? Is Obama seeking a Congressional mandate because he worries that the “limited intervention” will grow substantially in scope? If this is the case, the president is certainly correct in seeking Congress’ approval…provided he tells all and does not withhold evidence of the possibility of such an escalation.