Here's a Wild Idea About Syria: Make the Case to Congress

It would be better for America if Congress had to consider the arguments for military action. It would be better for Obama too.

Now that I think about it, I kind of see how that could happen. You bomb a country, and the next thing you know you are pulled into a war. Good thing we have experts to help us connect the dots. 

(Actually, apart from the Onion-esque headline, the contents of this front-page piece from today's WaPo are excellent, based on interviews with real military experts about the unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences of "limited" and "surgical" military actions.)

Here's a note just now from another genuine expert, my friend and one-time teacher Charles Stevenson, long of the National War College and the Senate Armed Services Committee staff: 

I share your concerns about the consequences of punitive strikes against Syria -- too weak to change the military situation yet making America militarily involved with all manner of risky consequences.
I don't believe the President really needs congressional approval for a deliberately short and limited set of attacks on Syria, though he obviously should consult with congressional leaders. I also doubt that the current Congress could give advice and consent in a timely or coherent way, given the hyperpartisanship there and its failure to do more than bluster at the time of the Libyan raids.
On the other hand, I'm pleased that Britain, which lacks our explicit constitutional provisions for war powers, is still going to have a parliamentary vote on the issue. I wish we would do the same.

To Stevenson's proposal in the third paragraph: No kidding. And Obama himself should be the first to grasp the point. Completely apart from the procedural nicety of involving the rest of the government in authorizing the use of force, he has a compelling political interest in spreading the responsibility for this decision.

Even if Obama has already made up his mind to launch a strike, and even if that operation goes perfectly, something about it will go wrong. Messages will get blurred and bungled; the fog of war will interfere; innocents will be killed. How many people planning the bomb-Serbia campaign in 1999 imagined that it would create a crisis between the U.S. and China, because of the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade?

Obama can't know what exactly will happen if he launches a strike. But he should know, for sure, that even the cleanest intervention will bring mistakes, tragedies, and eventual blame. Therefore it should be 100% in his interest to share responsibility for the decision before it is solely his. As Charlie Stevenson points out, the Brits don't have to do this, but the Cameron government is bringing it to a vote. Of course that works more easily in a Parliamentary system, where he can rely on a disciplined majority, than in our current dysfunctional mess. But it makes sense in any democracy, even ours. 

UPDATE: Please also read William Pfaff's analysis of the terrible trap Obama created for himself with his "red line" statement last year. Heart of the argument:

When Barack Obama foolishly remarked last fall that if the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria made use of chemical weapons... it would cross a “red line” so far as the American government was concerned. His statement implied that the United States is in charge of international war and peace.

The obvious threat was that the United States would intervene in the war. How it would intervene, with what means, to what objective, he did not say.... 

One assumes that in speaking so casually and recklessly about a red line in Syria, President Obama failed to grasp -- how could he have done so? – that he was handing his Republican and neo-conservative opponents a primed bomb with which, as they certainly instantly understood, they could destroy him politically if there were a chemical attack and Mr. Obama did not go to war in Syria.

He was doing something else. He was giving the same bomb to any other international actor who might seek advantage in an American intervention in Syria that would spread the war, possibly to President Assad’s regional allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, already active clandestinely.... 
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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