How a Congressional Authorization Could Escalate U.S. Intervention in Syria

Obama will need the support of Republican hawks to get a Syria measure passed, and they're already calling for a bigger intervention than punitive strikes.

Muzaffar Salman/Reuters

When the Congress of the United States of America authorizes a military intervention, the result is usually a war. American presidents, even after the passage of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, generally have not sought congressional approval in advance of brief interventions and targeted military strikes. That makes Obama's request for Congress to authorize the use of force in a limited strike against Syria unusual.

But I wonder if there's not also a logic of escalation that comes into play now that Obama has requested Congressional authorization, creating a very real possibility that the result of a formal authorization for use of force will be a more aggressive or protracted intervention than what we'd have seen had the president not sought Congress's buy-in. If Obama had acted alone to order a bombing campaign over Labor Day weekend, that would likely have been the end of it. Outraged liberals and furious isolationist Republicans would have united in criticism of his use of presidential power, rallying forcefully against further intervention in a conflict the vast majority of Americans don't want the U.S. to enter.

Now, however, we are seeing pressure from Republican hawks for the administration to go beyond Obama's rather clinical rationale for intervention -- upholding the international norm against chemical-weapons use that the major norm-setting international institutions, such as the U.N., scarcely seem devoted to any more. Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham want the outcome of the congressional process to be a strategic plan for resolving the conflict in Syria and removing Bashar al-Assad from power.

“We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the president’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests,” McCain and Graham said in a statement Saturday.

The same message is coming from a chorus of hawks in the press, who are arguing that an intervention that sends a message on chemical weapons but fails to change the balance of power in the underlying conflict is inadequate. "Congress should not support any resolution that does not, in addition to targeting chemical weapons, also aim to turn the tide against Assad and pressure him to seek a negotiated settlement," National Review's Mario Loyola argued, in one of many examples of people calling for a broader approach. Nor is it just hawks -- an intervention without “an objectives-based strategy” defies logic, according to Frederic Hof, the former Obama State Department point man on Syria. One writer has even accused Obama of flirting with "appeasement" in Syria.

Obama on Tuesday reiterated before a White House meeting with congressional leaders that any intervention would be limited. "This is not Iraq, this is not Afghanistan," he said. "This is a limited, proportional step that will send a message not only to the Assad regime, but to other countries that may be interested in testing these international norms, that there are consequences."

But now the president, too, is talking about long-term strategy. The planned intervention "fits into a broader strategy that we have to make sure that we can bring about over time the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic and economic and political pressure required so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability not only to Syria but to the region," Obama said Tuesday.

And he has expanded the timeframe for action: "not just now but also in the future as long as the authorization allows us to do that." It has not escaped notice that the use of force authorization the White House sent Congress would seem to have been written for a longer and broader campaign than the one publicly proposed by the administration last week. It's so broadly worded, in fact, that Democrats in the Senate have expressed concern and are working to pare it down.

“I know it will be amended in the Senate,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said, calling it "too open-ended." Rep. Chris Van Hollen said the amendment would benefit from an express prohibition on ground troops -- use of which Obama has also repeatedly ruled out -- and perhaps also an expiration date. But unless the expiration date is less than a week from the measure's passage, even that option would be likely to authorize a more prolonged effort than the president initially proposed. Four Republican senators have indicated support for the existing proposal, including McCain and Graham.

On Monday, McCain confirmed after meeting with Obama that the administration has made a shift to a broader argument based on longer-term strategic goals, at least in private. "We believe there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad. Before this meeting, we had not had that indication," he said.

Now, if Obama gets congressional approval, he'll be getting it in what is likely to remain a fairly open-ended way, as part of a strategy with bigger aims, and owe his legislative success in part to the support of the most hawkish members of Congress. Is there any doubt they will continue to pressure him to act under the authorization they will have granted him, and that his White House requested? And that the forces gunning for intervention, once mobilized, will have a momentum of their own?