Over the last several days the nation has witnessed President Obama declare his intent to use military force in Syria to punish the Assad government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, the British Parliament reject Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for authorization to commit the UK to a military intervention in Syria, and Republican leaders in Congress standing behind the President. Once again, the call to arms creates an almost circus like environment in our nation’s capital albeit with potentially deadly consequences.
In remarks delivered at the White House during a Rose Garden press conference on August 31, President Obama insisted, “Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place. And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see -- hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children -- young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.” He added, “Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.”
Days later the President suggested the Syrian government had crossed a “red line,” insisting the use of chemical weapons by President Assad compels the United States to act, even unilaterally if necessary. President Obama also suggested that Congress too had previously determined that this red line existed and had made its position known in reference to the use of chemical agents. While the imagery of Syrians apparently suffering from being gassed came across television screens and were jarring, the death toll in Syria had been constant long before Assad allegedly poisoned his own people. The new threshold for military intervention in territories experiencing human catastrophes that the Obama administration has established seems now to raise the bar for the United States to consider acting in those instances when conventional weapons are the source of mass killings. Or, at least, the White House is keyed more to those instances when chemical or biological agents are in play.
The President’s point person on Syria has been Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke convincingly during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the administration’s certainty that President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. The former Massachusetts senator and one time Democratic presidential candidate declared, “We have the evidence. We know what happened.” Trading upon his military credentials, the Secretary of State struck a pose of confidence not dissimilar to the tone taken by former Secretary of State Colin Powell when he went before the United Nations to make the case for the Bush White House’s claim that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Not be outdone, Republicans Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), offered their qualified backing to the President. Joining the two senators were House Speaker John Boehner, who also gave his support to the President’s planned intervention in Iraq. While all three offered varying degrees of reservation, it was the Republicans on the hill, and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez (D), who were serving as the President’s offensive line. However, Republican lawmakers are taking heat in their home states and congressional districts from constituents who are leery of another U.S. military engagement overseas that could lead to a prolonged war and the commitment of American troops on the ground. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Menendez, passed a resolution, 10-7, in favor of granting the President authorization to launch a military strike on Syria and the language in the resolution does not preclude sending the American military into the country. Voting yes for the resolution were Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Richard Durbin (D-Ill), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Senator Boxer voted by proxy due to the Jewish holiday. Joining the Democrats were ranking Republican member Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and John McCain (R-AZ.). Voting in opposition to the resolution were Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), James Risch (R-ID), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Johnson (R-WI), John Barrasso (R-WY) and Rand Paul (R-KY). Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey (D) voted present, declining to take a position.
Several factors complicate President Obama’s announced intent to strike Syria. The most important might be that the President tipped his hand and has given the Syrian government ample opportunity to shield potential targets and scatter chemical munitions. The President, for the moment, is also isolated internationally as world leaders have resisted his call to action and the closest ally of the United States, Great Britain, is reluctant to lead after the debacle in Iraq. The vote in the British House of Commons against the Prime Minister’s request is the residual effect of widespread skepticism in the UK due to lingering memories of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s outspokenness in support of the Bush administration in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq and during the war. President Obama also faces deep doubts among the American public, weary after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that many doubt the effectiveness of U.S. intervention, despite the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and question the cost of another potential war. The President is also facing push back in his own party as the vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirms. Many Democrats on the hill are eager to avoid a Bush-like war scenario and fear that the President’s reasoning behind a military strike is weak and lacks a clearly defined objective.
During the next week the President and his key advisers will continue to press his case for a military strike in Syria before lawmakers and in the public domain. If Congress refuses to grant President Obama the authorization he seeks, the President will be in the politically uncomfortable and dangerous position of ordering a military strike without the support of the legislative branch, and symbolically the people, and unilaterally without the concurrence of an international ally or the United States. This conceivably could be the defining moment of the Obama presidency.