The Best Result From Congress: A 'No' Vote on Syria

By James Fallows

One week ago at exactly this time -- it seems like a year -- the political world was on waning-moments countdown for the expected U.S. strike on Syria. Then about an hour later, President Obama took the surprising and highly welcome step of saying he would request approval from Congress. 

Let me spell out what was implicit in the items I was putting up just before and after the President's decision. You can find them all collected here, including the one by William Polk that continues to get a lot of attention. In the past few days, like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates (and for the same reason, the nightmare of actual article-writing), I've mainly been off line. Here is how things look to me a week further on:

  1. Obama's decision to involve Congress is the one clearly positive result of the horrific Syrian civil war. Whatever the reasons for his decision, it will help redress the decades-long distortion in executive and legislative power over military action.
  2. If I had a vote in Congress, I would vote No. I wasn't sure of that a week ago, as I'll explain below. But it is how I feel now because of this next reason #3.
  3. The President and many of his supporters have made an ironclad case that something should be done about the disasters and atrocities in Syria. But they have barely even tried to make a case that the right something is U.S. airstrikes without broad international support. Thus:
  4. Obama himself should hope that the Congress turns him down. A No vote would offer a legitimate if temporarily "humiliating" way out of what is looking more and more like an inexplicable strategic mistake.

Now the details.

On why Obama's decision was so valuable: I gave part of my explanation nine days ago. Garrett Epps explained the legal and historical reasoning around the same time. Zachary Karabell talked about the (wholesome) political implications yesterday. Many others have stressed the same thing. Overall: since at least the Vietnam era, people on all sides of American politics have lamented the seemingly unstoppable rise of an Imperial Presidency. Obama may not have had this in mind a month ago or even a week ago, but his decision will help brake (and break) that trend.

On why I was ready to hear his case, once he decided to make it to Congress: I had obviously been skeptical of unilateral military involvement Syria. A week ago we were headed toward action that was unilateral in two ways. One was the absence of UN, NATO, EU, UK, or other broad alliances that have been amassed for nearly all modern military strikes. The other was the domestic unilateralism of Obama's deciding this all on his own.

For me, the very fact of going to Congress made the plan presumptively more legitimate. If we went ahead, it would be a national decision, not one man's choice. A broader and more systematic U.S. process might in turn attract wider allied backing -- which in its turn could mark any action as a defense of truly international, not just American, norms. And the need to testify and debate in Congress, even this madhouse Congress, would ensure that basic questions about evidence, plans, and contingencies got asked and (presumably) answered. Therefore I thought a week ago that after hearing a case made, in these legitimizing circumstances, I could imagine being convinced that Congress should offer the support that the president, to his credit, had requested rather than assumed. Overall, we might have a least-worst outcome: bipartisan agreement, American leadership, reinforcement of the anti-chemical norm.

On why I would now vote No:  From what I can tell, approximately 100% of the pro-strike arguments have been devoted to proving what no one contests. Namely, that hideous events are underway in Syria, that someone (and most likely Assad) has criminally and horrifically gassed civilians, and that something should be done to reduce the ongoing carnage and punish the war crimes. And approximately 0% of the argument has addressed the main anti-strike concern: whether U.S. military action -- minus broad support, any formal international approval, or any clear definition of goal, strategy, or success -- is an effective response.

For instance, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, with whom I usually agree, argues powerfully something should be done to and for Syria. His case for missile strikes is that they "just might, at the margins, make a modest difference." If anyone has seen a defense that says, "These steps, in this way, match means to objective, and have the following path to success," please let me know.

There is such a thing as too much caution in committing force, often known as McClellanism after the reluctant-warrior Union commander at the start of the Civil War. (Leading of course to the famous line attributed to Lincoln, "If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.") And nations, like individuals, predictably over-learn the lessons of their most recent mistakes.

But even if the Iraq-war disaster had not happened, even if the tiny handful of Americans who are in the military had not been worn out through a decade-plus of nonstop deployments, any decision about use of force should be accompanied by answers to these most basic questions:

- What, exactly, is its goal?

- How will we know if our plan has succeeded or failed?

- What happens after we make our first move? In this case, suppose the Assad regime, or Iran, or Russia, responds in a way we don't anticipate. What second- and third-round moves are we allowing for?

- Is our choice really as stark as turning our back, or sending in bombs? 

Many past items have gone into one or more of these questions. For instance, on basic questions, please check out this. Maybe Obama and his team have answers. If so, he had better start sharing them. For now he has not come close to making the case that, while "something" should be done, this is the right something. As the young Obama himself said so memorably 11 years ago, "What I am opposed to is dumb wars."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/09/the-best-result-from-congress-a-no-vote-on-syria/279412/