Has Obama administration gone wobbly on Syria?’
Syria, chemical weapons and the United States. If nothing else, President Barack Obama last month was emphatic. “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad,” Obama declared at the National Defense University in early December, “….The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is…totally unacceptable….[T]here will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
But what a difference a New Year makes. At a January 10 news conference, the administration’s senior security officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Martin E. Dempsey, recoiled: Consequences won’t involve the Pentagon. Better wait to secure the arsenal after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Panetta said. Dempsey stated: “Preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.” The result, as Panetta explained: “We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground.”
Assad must have smiled. Washington had gone wobbly on chemical weapons. With the deterrent value of the president’s remarks in question – and one unconfirmed report that Syria used a chemical agent in Homs on December 23 – the chemical specter remains. This raises the key question: Would Obama really stand by if the Syrian government gassed thousands of its citizens?
Before we answer, let’s hit the pause button for a reality check: Are chemical weapons really more heinous than the bombs that have already killed some 60,000 Syrians. This continuing mayhem has not justified military intervention so far. Why would chemical weapons be different?
Lift the pause button and one suspects it would be hard for the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to a Halabja on steroids – Halabja being the last case where an Arab regime (Iraq in 1988) killed thousands of its people in a chemical attack.
But the tug to save lives is countered by another specter: Quashing Assad’s chemical capacity could plunge the U.S. into a new military quagmire.
Obama clearly has the authority to act. If he wishes to use force, under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, he can do so for at least 60 days without congressional approval.
But to avoid Congress now would be a mistake. The flummoxed administration needs another set of eyes to determine what is in the national interest. Congress can do this, assuming it can act with independence and reverse the legacy of deferring to the executive branch on matters of war and peace. Granting presidents, for example, broad authority to use military force without proper vetting – as the Gulf of Tonkin and Iraq war resolutions illustrated – ill-served the country.
To this end, Congress should reconvene the hearings begun last session. This time, however, it must press for details about the administration’s assumptions about intervening or not. In addition, all the hearings should be public – not secret, as the administration prefers. This will give the American people confidence in the decision-making.
Among the broad questions the hearings should explore:
• Why should Syria’s use of chemical weapons be more concerning than the conventional arms that have killed many tens of thousands and wounded countless others?
• Have policymakers exaggerated chemical weapons’ effectiveness to kill, injure and terrorize?
• Given concerns that terrorists could get hold of these weapons, what challenges would they confront to transport and detonate the toxic material in and out of Syria?
• Why can’t Syria’s neighbors, Turkey, Jordan and Israel – all substantial military powers in the region – deal with this challenge?
• How many and what kinds of U.S. forces would operations require –with and without allies – to lock down the Syrian chemical arsenal? Would air power be enough? Would boots on the ground be required to secure secret sites? Could rebel militias serve this purpose?
• If the United States intervenes, what is the game plan and exit strategy to prevent another quagmire?
Congress should mold its findings into a joint House and Senate resolution – still plausible on national security issues even as legislators divide on budgetary matters – unblemished by executive branch drum-beating or quaking.
If Congress does this, it won’t just be addressing the Syrian challenge. It will finally begin to right the imbalance of power between the executive and lawmakers that for too long has dominated American war deciding.
This will begin to fulfill what the War Powers Resolution intended – to “insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the president will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”
PHOTO: Members of the Free Syrian Army take positions as they return fire during clashes with pro-government soldiers in the city of Aleppo, October 15, 2012. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih