Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 1: Stevenson and Lofgren

"Attacking Syria is simply not in the U.S. national interest; and absent an objective assessment from a neutral inspection team, and absent a UN resolution, the U.S. has no legitimate authority under any law or treaty to act unilaterally. Period." 
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In the wake of President Obama's (welcome) decision to seek Congressional authorization before striking Syria, long-time Congressional defense-policy expert Charles Stevenson offers these guidelines about what Congress should actually do:

President Obama's request for congressional authorization for retaliatory strikes in Syria creates tough choices for members of Congress. Do they want to assert their constitutional role in war powers by taking decisive action, or do they want to play political games? Does a majority want to support action, oppose it, or try to set limits and conditions?

The best model for congressional action is the law they passed in 1983 authorizing participation in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the only time Congress specifically authorized force under the War Powers Act. Public Law 98-119 has several features that should be part of any measure on Syria:

  • It declared the action is part of the War Powers Act process, thus reasserting that mostly ignored law as a proper basis for action.
  • It limited U.S. military participation to a peacekeeping mission as President Reagan had promised -- that the U.S. forces would not engage in combat.
  • It provided expedited, no filibuster rules for considering subsequent amendments to the law.

The best test of the Obama policy would be a simple up-or-down vote on a joint resolution authorizing the attack but limiting its purpose and scope.  If that is not enough, if some members want to promote a policy of military aid to the Syrian opposition or a no-fly zone, let them vote on that and abide by the results. If it's too much, let them vote that way and deny the President the support he seeks.

If Congress can't come together and agree on a common policy, they will forfeit their claims to war powers.

Another long-time Congressional defense- and budget-policy expert often quoted here before, Mike Lofgren, adds these thoughts:

1. The administration's declassified intelligence summary of the chemical weapons incident  reads like a White House lawyer's advocacy brief rather than a neutral assessment of evidence. Some of it is just circular reasoning, asserting as fact that which ought to be proven. Also, it uses up a paragraph refuting a hypothetical which was never a significant issue: no serious person, to my knowledge, ever asserted that a gas attack never happened....  Otherwise, the paper says, in effect, "we have the intelligence back-up, but you, the public can't see it. Trust us." That really worked out well in the past, didn't it? 
 
2. There is at least a non-negligible chance this is a false flag operation (cui bono, of course); also a non-negligible chance it occurred because of a break-down of command and control during a vicious civil war, or because Assad cannot control the actions of some of his allies like Hezbollah. But so what...

Attacking Syria is simply not in the US national interest; and absent an objective assessment from a neutral inspection team, and absent a UN resolution, the US has no legitimate authority under any law or treaty to act unilaterally. Period. The US Government claims it is upholding international norms; but in so acting it is violating those very same norms. The US has in the recent past violated international norms on aggressive war, torture, rendition of POWs, assassination, use of chemical weapons (phosphorous, napalm, etc.), land mines, ad infinitum. The US acting in this manner is like a serial wife beater judging a case of spousal abuse.

3. Obama appears to believe he can replicate Bill Clinton's "drive-by shootings" with cruise missiles during the 1990s. They didn't really achieve much, but they did allow the commander in chief to "act presidential," etc. But we know Hezbollah is in Syria, and a US strike could result in Hezbollah's launching missile attacks against Israel. That is a very thinkable scenario, and would automatically transform a limited strike into a very messy regional crisis. Once you cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the notion of careful calibration is amateurish.
 
4. Many have criticized Obama's "red lines" statement as poor policymaking, like writing a post-dated check and not worrying whether someone would cash it. Obama was buying time, while simultaneously narrowing his future options. His domestic negotiations proceed exactly like that: he accepted the sequester he didn't want to buy time for the debt limit increase. Obama negotiated with himself on the fiscal cliff deal, and thereby retained the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts when they would have expired anyway.

Placing the Syria decision upon Congress is wise, given the alternative, but it also amounts to buying time... It only remains to be seen whether Obama is really such a poor politician who can be driven to results he doesn't want (which raises the question of how he won two cut-throat presidential elections campaigns); or, alternatively, if the foreign and domestic political outcomes of the last five years were outcomes he actually wanted.... 
 
5. There is something troubling but difficult to define at the heart of Obama's performance in office. It was epitomized by his rhetorical display during the March on Washington, at the precise moment his administration was announcing, "we're going to bomb Syria, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop us." And yet there Obama was, trying to gain moral capital by associating himself with Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence, who denounced the Vietnam war in harsh and specific terms.... Perhaps, like Louis Napoleon, Obama is "a sphinx without a riddle," but at all events he is baffling.

To address Lofgren's question #4: I don't think these results -- sequester and serial debt-ceiling emergencies, Afghanistan surge, Syrian involvement, etc -- were the outcomes Obama was hoping for. So how has he ended up here, despite the skills shown in two presidential-election victories?

In large part I think it is because of the often-discussed reality that current GOP positioning makes it harder for them to win national elections, but easy to have an outsized obstructionist impact in Congress. "Outsized" through the combination of gerrymandering in the House (Democratic House candidates, as a group, got more votes than Republicans overall, but the Republicans have a big House majority) and filibustering in the Senate. "Obstructionist" because the only perceived threat to most GOP incumbents is from the right. Obama's political skills and instincts are skewed in a similar way: better matched to national elections than to the day-by-day trench warfare of dealing with this kind of Congress. He is strongest where the GOP is weakest, and vice versa.

Later today, a very detailed overview of Syrian prospects by William Polk -- plus even more from Holland, Michigan! 

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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