President Obama Faces Mounting Pressure to Stay Out of Syria

By Conor Friedersdorf
obama full wave reuters.jpg
Reuters

President Obama faces increasing pressure from lawmakers, foreign-policy experts, constitutional scholars, and anti-war activists to refrain from striking Syria. Opponents of war worry that an insular group of hawkish Washington, D.C., elites will succeed in prompting an intervention the consequences of which they cannot anticipate, despite widespread public opposition to U.S. involvement. The concerns of Syria anti-interventionists vary, but all agree that the president should not unilaterally decide to attack tyrant Bashar al-Assad's regime, even granting that recent chemical weapons attacks on civilians were atrocious. 

Some non-interventionists also point out that President Obama's credibility would suffer in the eyes of many if he decides to intervene. Ordering missile strikes would contradict his 2007 statement that the president "does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." The widespread perception that Obama is being pressured into an attack that even he doesn't want would also diminish the esteem in which some hold him. 

Legislators Demand a Say
ABC reported Wednesday that "a growing bipartisan coalition in Congress came together today to 'strongly urge' President Obama 'to consult and receive authorization from Congress before ordering the use of U.S. military force in Syria.'" 

The letter, which 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats signed, states:

While the Founders wisely gave the Office of the President the authority to act in emergencies, they foresaw the need to ensure public debate -- and the active engagement of Congress -- prior to committing U.S. military assets. Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.

Rep. Justin Amash, a signatory to the letter and Michigan Republican, has also taken to his Twitter feed to declare that a strike on Syria without Congressional approval would be "unquestionably unconstitutional and illegal," and to urge Speaker John Boehner to call the House of Representatives back into session to debate and vote on Syria. 

Meanwhile, "U.S. congressional intelligence committee leaders believe the Obama administration has not properly consulted them as the president engages in final deliberations for possible military action in Syria," Reuters reports. The story notes that "talks had largely taken place over unclassified non-secure phone lines, making it difficult to discuss sensitive intelligence findings or details of the administration's plans for a possible U.S. military response."

Scholars Challenge Legality of War
Congressional opponents of war aren't alone in urging President Obama to consult the legislature. Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, argues that "Article I of the Constitution reserves the power to declare war to Congress alone. Thus, any military action large enough to constitute a war requires congressional authorization. The president can, of course, defend against an actual or imminent enemy attack without waiting for Congress. In that scenario, a state of war would already exist independent of any US action. But the Assad regime has not attacked the US and does not seem likely to do so in the near future."

Yale Law School Professors Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro argue that a unilateral American attack on Syria would violate international law and undermine an important international norm. "It is a bedrock principle of international law that one state may not unilaterally attack another except in self-defense. That is true even when a state openly violates international laws such as the 1925 Geneva protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons," they write in the Washington Post. "In the absence of Security Council authorization, international law prohibits the use of military force to enforce international law. No state may play police officer to the world on its own say-so."

They go on to note Secretary of State John F. Kerry's confirmation-hearing statement,  "I think a U.N. resolution is a necessary ingredient to provide the legal basis for military action in an emergency." An attack sans U.N. approval would hurt Kerry's credibility. 

America's Top General Warns of Risks
Opposition to intervention is partly due to the trepidation shown by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who warned Congress, "We have learned from the past 10 years ... that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."

He also noted that "retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country."

Former military personnel are also speaking out against hawkish assumptions of easy victory, as John Hudson reports at Foreign Policy:

... a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly-detailed proposal for surgical strikes tells The Cable he has serious misgivings about the plan. He says too much faith is being put into the effectiveness of surgical strikes on Assad's forces with little discussion of what wider goals such attacks are supposed to achieve. "Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive," Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said. "I never intended my analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that."

"I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don't do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives," he added. "Any ship officer can launch 30 or 40 Tomahawks. It's not difficult. The difficulty is explaining to strategic planners how this advances U.S. interests."

The Washington Post quotes retired Marine General Anthony Zinni on the same subject:

The one thing we should learn is you can't get a little bit pregnant. If you do a one-and-done and say you're going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in... When there is a humanitarian disaster, people want to see something happen. You'll knee-jerk into the first option, blowing something up, without thinking through what this could lead to.

Foreign-Affairs Experts Question the Wisdom of Intervention
Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, warns that it is highly unlikely a strike against Assad's regime "can be so narrow that it will not force a deeper U.S. military engagement in Syria's civil war," and predicts that "the United States will be correctly perceived by all sides as intervening on behalf of the armed opposition."

From there, he says, "it is easy to conceive how the initial limited intervention for humanitarian purposes ... turns into a joint campaign plan to assure that Assad is toppled." 

Stephen Walt took to the New York Times to caution, "Airstrikes cannot eliminate Assad's chemical arsenal and are unlikely to tip the balance in favor of the rebels. And even if they did, this situation would give Assad a bigger incentive to use these weapons more widely. Assad's fall would create a failed state and unleash a bitter struggle among the various rebel factions. The Syrian uprising may have started as a peaceful reform effort, but today the most powerful rebel groups are jihadi extremists, the last people we want in power in Damascus."

The Wall Street Journal has aired the concerns of western diplomats who say that an American attack on Syria could harm efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program through negotiations. And Elizabeth O'Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, relayed related concerns to journalist Joshua Foust:

"Iran has a significant role in the regime's decision-making process," [she] told me this week.

She also pointed out multiple reports that suggest Iranian troops -- including the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps -- are guarding at least some of Assad's chemical stockpiles. Striking at those stockpiles would risk killing Iranian troops, which then would dramatically increase the chances of an accidental war with Iran.

Is that really worth the risk?

Foust goes on to argue that "though not as strong as they were two years ago, Syria still has a formidable air defense system, all of it arrayed at the coast from where U.S. Navy ships would be launching cruise missiles. To defeat that system would require a massive shock-and-awe campaign, which might not even get all of the necessary facilities on the first wave  --  and which would increase the chances of still more chemical weapons use by a regime desperate to hold onto power."

Chuck Spinney persuasively argues that Americans should be alarmed by Obama Administration officials invoking Kosovo as a precedent for strikes on Syria.

His argument is bolstered by American diplomat Christopher R. Hill, a special envoy to Kosovo, who told the Washington Post, "The problem is that people expect when U.S. military assets are deployed that we will do so until the regime goes away." The newspaper says that he "he understands and supports the White House's desire to launch a strike," but with a major caveat: "The problem with Syria is that it's bombing in the absence of a political plan," he said, cautioning that the Syrian regime could respond with more chemical attacks. "Every time you drop bombs on something," he said "you can't entirely predict the results."

Ed Husain, a New York-based senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, took to CNN Wednesday to argue against intervention:

There is no absolute certainty as to whether al Assad used chemical weapons, or rebel factions did. Al Assad has no credible motivation to use these weapons at this stage, and in this phase of the conflict. He is not losing.

If, as the Russians claim, it was al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusrah group or Free Syrian Army elements that used weapons to bait America into the conflict, then U.S. firepower would be futile in establishing how a ragtag army and terrorists obtained chemical weapons. No amount of surgical strikes on government facilities will prevent non-state actors from further use of these weapons. But if we believe that al Assad used these weapons, and launch punitive attacks on Syria, what exactly are we targeting? The secretive and globally isolated nature of the Assad regime and therefore his chemical stockpiles means that we do not know where these are located. 

We intervened in Libya with greater confidence because Gadhafi's chemical weapons were mostly eliminated by an international inspection arrangement prior to the Arab uprisings. By bombing Syria now we increase the risk of al Assad using chemical weapons on populations and cities that are not under government control, or to quell new rebellions. Damaging his air force and known military installation would force him to consider his more extreme options for regime survival. Syria is now a fight to the death for both sides.

U.S.-led military strikes in Syria will not change the tide of the war. That is not the mission, nor is it achievable by aerial blitzing. The Syrian opposition is not a government in waiting. It is too fragmented ideologically, overwrought by al Qaeda affiliates, deeply anti-American, and dominated by suburban fighters with little control of major cities, mercenaries who are not committed to peaceful coexistence with Syria's religious Christians, nor its Jewish neighbor. Syria after al Assad will be worse. A new civil war will break out between opposition factions. By bombing Syria today, we bear the burden of the instability we leave in our wake.

And Fareed Zakaria explained his opposition to U.S. intervention in this persuasive video:

Anti-War Activists Plan Protest at White House
Late Wednesday, Code Pink's Facebook page stated, "We will be joining the Answer Coalition tomorrow in front of the White House at 6:30 PM to say NO to War in Syria! Rumor has it that we will bomb as soon as tomorrow -- let's take action NOW!" And Syrian Americans in Chicago were divided on the best course, and planned to gather for a small anti-war rally in the Loop, the city's downtown area.

Underestimating Political Opposition to War
Despite popular opposition to intervention and the ideologically diverse voices pressuring Obama to refrain from striking Syria, especially without consulting Congress, the political press has given much more attention to the tiny minority pressuring Obama to attack. That imbalance that may have caused Obama Administration figures to underestimate the potential political fallout of a unilateral strike, as well as potential damage to the president's legacy if he intervenes. 

History has judged American presidents who entered questionable wars of choice much more harshly than presidents who refrain from waging questionable wars of choice. In fact, I cannot think of a single instance in which the latter decision caused the public to hold a president in significantly lower esteem.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/president-obama-faces-mounting-pressure-to-stay-out-of-syria/279154/