Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama’s flawed case for a Syria strike

By Ari Melber
September 3, 2013

We should not bomb Syria without a vital national security interest and a precise foreign policy objective.

Right now, the Obama administration has not established either.

Under the United States’ legal and historical precedents, a president faces the highest burden for justifying military attacks that are essentially optional: actions not required for self-defense and which are not in response to an attack on the United States — or imminent threat of such attack.  Intervening in the Syrian civil war fits that difficult category.

Even supporters of Syrian intervention do not claim it is required for U.S. security, since the Assad regime has not directly attacked the United States or its interests. In fact, the mission’s stated goal doesn’t attempt to qualify as traditional self-defense. The aim is to “prevent or deter” Syria from killing its citizens with chemical weapons, according to the Obama administration’s original draft resolution.

The White House has every right to make the humanitarian case for intervention, a rationale pressed earnestly in Bosnia and dishonestly in Iraq. This altruistic argument, however, has rarely provided the sole policy or legal justification for a proactive attack on a sovereign nation. That’s true both in American history and under international law. Given that context, the administration’s piecemeal case for limited intervention is particularly hard to accept.

Administration officials are proposing a military operation that claims to fall short of war while sidestepping any notion of conventional victory over the Assad regime.

The potential attack is “not about regime change,” White House officials said last week. Thus the draft resolution limits the use of force for containing the “use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria.”

Those promised boundaries make the operation sound like far less of a commitment than declaring war. And as a legal matter, those boundaries mean explicit congressional approval is probably not required. But this approach risks boxing the entire effort in as a tactical campaign with no foreign policy strategy.

Attacking Assad’s infrastructure without aiming at his authority leaves the operation without a long-term goal. Even that assumes a “best case,” limited attack.

The larger risk is that promised boundaries will prove illusory. Yes, the administration can sell intervention as a surgical strike — “quick” and “limited,” an antidote to the mission creep or the “third war” many Americans wish to avoid.

Does anyone familiar with military history, however, believe intervention can be so tightly scripted?

Surely if Syria responded to a foreign attack by retaliating against the United States or its interests — which is the right of any sovereign nation under attack — then U.S. objectives and operations could shift dramatically.

Given all the talk in Washington, these questions are moving quickly past whispered hypotheticals.

On Monday, Syrian officials said they would respond to any U.S. bombing by attacking American ships in the Mediterranean Sea, in coordination with Hezbollah. (The Lebanese Shi’ite group, which has fought Israel since the early 1980s, backs Assad in the civil war.) That reaction would risk a wider conflict with the United States, and possibly Israel or Iran.

Obama can genuinely propose a limited operation — but no president can guarantee one. And once Congress hands over authority to attack another country, it is hard to take back.

That is a well known political dynamic, since it’s hard to de-fund even unpopular wars. It is also a legal dynamic, because our national security laws usually give Congress only one chance to hit the brakes.

Congress’ role in authorizing military actions usually operates as a switch before a conflict — rarely during or after it. Congress may reject the administration’s resolution, like any executive proposal. But once approved, it opens the door to a potentially long and wide conflict.

The White House draft uses several different words to stress a limited chemical weapons response. As a legal trigger, however, it uses the key provision of the War Powers law to grant war-like authority for an open-ended military operation.

For an attack on Syria, the resolution states that Congress is granting “specific statutory authorization within the meaning of Section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.”

That is the crucial section of the War Powers law that limits unilateral war. It requires the president to begin rolling back any unilateral military operations after two months, unless specific conditions are met. Those conditions include a declaration of war or Congress passing a “specific authorization” of force. So the resolution gives the president the explicit power of an authorized war under the law, but without using those words.

There is no clear case for intervention here, and definitely not for intervention under those terms. Some members of Congress want to tighten the resolution, including explicitly limiting the length of combat and barring regime change as a military objective.

There is plenty to improve here, and that is a worthwhile part of the public and congressional debate. For example, the resolution doesn’t limit geographic targets to Syria’s borders, a concern considering that the 2001 Afghanistan resolution has been applied to attacks in Yemen and Pakistan.

But we should be careful to avoid taking too much comfort in revisions to the resolution. Congress cannot wordsmith the administration out of a flawed strategy, nor amend foreign policy precedents with a narrow authorization.

Once force is authorized, there are very few practical limits on the executive, and presidents in both parties have claimed broad military powers. “Authorizing strikes for 60 days will not prohibit the president from using force beyond 60 days,” explains Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and former Justice Department official, because modern presidents believe they have “independent, inherent” constitutional authority to conduct military campaigns.

Ultimately, if Congress really wants to limit an open-ended commitment in Syria, its best opportunity is to vote “no” from the start.

 

PHOTO (Top): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (L) listens to President Barack Obama during a meeting with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington to discuss a military response to Syria, September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

PHOTO (Insert 1): Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), (L), speaks to the media as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) listens, after meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, on possible military action against Syria, in Washington, September 2, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

PHOTO (Insert 2): Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad gestures during an interview with French daily Le Figaro in Damascus in this handout distributed by Syria’s national news agency SANA on September 2, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout

PHOTO (Insert 3): John Kerry, secretary of state (L), and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speak before presenting the administration’s case for U.S. military action against Syria to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments
15 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I’m listening to the hearings on C-Span and I’d like to know if Ari Melber is watching the same. If Assad is allowed to use chemical weapons of mass destruction with impunity, American vital interests in the middle east will be adversely affected. Ari should wait until the debate in Congress is over and then question whether America’s vital interest are involved.

Posted by ronaldwgumbs | Report as abusive
 

I argue one point and that is when would it not be a humanitarian case to defend against an attack by a foreign entity on the United States or any other sovereign nation? I argue that humanitarianism is always a, if not the primary purpose behind defending one’s people, life and property. Humanitarianism played primary roles in World Wars I and II. Today we are discussing the tragic affront to that which the world agreed upon after WWI, that use of chemical weapons on men, women and children is illegal as agreed upon by the worlds’ nations.

Another point I take issue with is over the question of what constitutes vital national security interests and precise foreign policy interests. The Middle East is intrinsically entwined in our foreign policy interests and the emboldened use of chemical weapons are a threat to our national security interests as well as to the rest of the world.

I don’t want to make my comment longer than your editorial. I’ll let it go at that but I will say I am not a hawk. I was one of the minority of Americans against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I was a juvenile when I was arrested for blocking the steps to the U.S. Justice Department building in protest of the Vietnam War. I understand the concerns people have especially after Iraq.

If we choose to do nothing I then suggest the media stop covering Syria so at least we don’t have to see what it is we’re doing nothing about.

Posted by 12Lions | Report as abusive
 

“The White House has every right to make the humanitarian case for intervention, a rationale pressed earnestly in Bosnia and dishonestly in Iraq.”

How can you write that, and expect me to take you seriously? You are implying that the Iraqi people were doing just fine before Coalition troops showed up. That there were no “rape houses” in the middle of the lakes surrounding the Hussein’s palaces. That Hussein and his children didn’t divert Baghdad’s power and water to keep those lakes full and palaces lit. That he wasn’t attempting genocide, no he was great guy who didn’t bother anybody.

Posted by JFalmog | Report as abusive
 

there is absolutely no justification for getting involved in Syria. the US’s ‘humanitarian’ love-bombs killed far more Libyans than their civil war did – mostly women and children and left the country a wreck where darker-skinned Libyans are being hunted down and slaughtered. it is also providing a gateway for illegal weapons shipments.

We were not welcomed as liberators in Afghanistan and Iraq either. we killed millions and used chemical weapons on women and children. Depleted uranium and Gulf war syndrome will affect many generations to come. and rarely does a day pass without another bombing in one or both countries. How were these limited surgical strikes or even wars that are winnable?

Posted by prolibertate | Report as abusive
 

Before we talk about Syria, a number of issues need to be addressed: 1) Obama’s war criminal indictment for the Lybian genocide 2) Where is the $4 billion that Obama’s criminal friend John Corzine embezzled? 3) Where are all the spy files from HB geary, the spies who spied on the spies?
4) What did Hillary Clinton do with Ban ki moon’s private information and credit cards?

Posted by Renox | Report as abusive
 

Few are mentioning the positive side to a war. It stimulates the economy, especially the defense industry. There might be an upswing in jobs. Of course these will be red dollars, not green ones, but in the end a dollar is a dollar.

/sarcasm font off.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive
 

Judging by Obama’a performance, at the press conference with the prime minister of Sweden, it is abundantly clear that he has failed to get Sweden on his side over the question of attacking Syria.
Despite widespread lack of support both domestic and international he persists.
In the face of such stubborness it can only be assumed that he has a personal agenda for insisting on playing policeman to the world.
He stands to harvest a storm beyond his capacity to control.
All in all he has been a great disappointment as president.
In effect he has accomplished nothing of note at home or abroad.
At home he did little re. the Gulf oil spill. His health act is in trouble. He saved GM and destroyed Detroit.
Abroad he killed Bin Laden – already a “has been” in the realm of terrorists. He made a humiliating shambles of Libya. Accomplished nothing on Iran and continues to lose the war in Afghanistan with as bad a defeat as suffered by the Russians.
A president is judged by his accomplishments.
He has none.
By his own mouth he is indeed “unworthy” of the Nobel Peaces prize.

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive
 

Let’s get this straight. More than 110,000 Syrians – men, women and children – have been killed by bombs (all chemical weapons). Then, they use a different type of chemical bomb that kills 1,000+. Now, we’re upset?

What’s really going on is that the powers-that-be want the government to expend more resources to not only keep the conflict going, but to expand it! Think of the increase in profits they will make off of American weapons. Some conspiracy theory, huh?! Sometimes they’re true… The rich keep getting richer as the poor foot the bills.

The Syrian conflict is the ideal investment for arms manufacturers. We cannot possibly accomplish anything other than waste resources, antagonize more people and expand the conflict. Fantastic!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

Oh, yes, the media. Why is it that most of the media is banging the war drums as if they had all suddenly gone crazy? Who benefits from their extreme controversy-seeking fare?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

As has been explained many times now, the claim that Assad would invite US intervention by use of chemical weapons makes no tactical sense. Assad is clearly not a crazy person, and evidently enjoys broad support. This is Russia’s case, and just because Russia said it, does not change its logic.

On the other hand, the “rebels”, and their supporters, have been highly motivated by Obama’s “red line” to use CW and pin it on Assad. This is clearly the much more likely case.

No convincing case has been presented by the USgov that Assad used CW. The “proof” they have offered is in the form of various claimed communication interceptions. Voice and text can readily be doctored up by the interceptors, presumably mainly by Israel. The USgov and Isreal have previously manipulated the US into the Iraq war through lies and phony, and are very likely doing it again. Clearly the objective of the US/Israel is to take over control of the ME: Syria, Iran, and a few others to lesser extent, stand in their way.

Assad’s sin: Not to kowtow to the West. The Syrian people who are paying: 100,000 deaths, 2 million refugees, 2-3 million displaced people. These are naked war crimes of the highest degree.

As Mr. Melber says:
“We should not bomb Syria without a vital national security interest and a precise foreign policy objective. Right now, the Obama administration has not established either.”

While this is true, the issue of being lied into war (again), and the moral issue of killing many more Syrians, precedes this, and has not been settled.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive
 

As Dr. Ron Paul says: It is ‘Reckless and immoral’ for US to intervene in Syria. Similarly his son, Senator Rand Paul:“At this point, I think it’s a bad idea”; paraphrasing, “it’s not known whether Assad would use chemical weapons”. Ron Paul: “I Smell Iraq All Over Again”

Progressive Change Campaign Committee: 1 million members, 73% to 18% respondents oppose U.S. military action in Syria.

Evidently, President Assad has had chemical weapons for a long time, and not used them. So do other countries, including US/Israel.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive
 

Our Middle Easter foreign policy is in disarray. We disengaged from Iraq before that country was prepared to govern and defend itself. We assumed that responsibility for governing and securing Iraq) when G.W. Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Today, in Iraq, the country is near civil war, with bombs killing dozens of personnel on a daily basis. We continue our military drawdown from Afghanistan, and the Afghan government and people are not nearly prepared to govern themselves. Afghanistan will sink into another civil war. We ousted Ghadaffi from Libya, and today, Libya is dysfunctional and in civil war. We backed the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak and stood by idly as the Egyptian military conducted a coup against a democratically elected government. So much for supporting democracy. Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons and has more regional influence than before G.W. Bush declared it to be part of the Axis of Evil and launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We remain intertwined in the Israeli-Palestinian issue and simply lack the political resolve to either force an accomodation between these states or disengage and allow them to settle their issues once and for all. And, now, we are boxed in a corner in Syria and are about to undertake military strikes which will destroy much of Assad’s air force and command and control and tip the balance of power in favor of the rebels; we’ll then layer a “no fly” zone over rebel held territory and extend that zone as the rebels capture additional ground. Assad’s purported (but unproven) use of chemical weapons is our excuse to use force and support a regime change; the use of force has nothing to do with punishing Assad for his purported use of chemicals. And the end state of our upcoming war with Syria? Another failed state (likely in civil war) that increases instability in the Middle East and increases the threats to our national security interests. Taken together, we have over a decade of failed policy in the Middle East, and our planned actions against Syria will only serve to make worse that failed policy and heighten (not lessen) the threats to our national security interests. It’s a monumental mess.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive
 

Our Middle Easter foreign policy is in disarray. We disengaged from Iraq before that country was prepared to govern and defend itself. We assumed that responsibility for governing and securing Iraq) when G.W. Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Today, in Iraq, the country is near civil war, with bombs killing dozens of personnel on a daily basis. We continue our military drawdown from Afghanistan, and the Afghan government and people are not nearly prepared to govern themselves. Afghanistan will sink into another civil war. We ousted Ghadaffi from Libya, and today, Libya is dysfunctional and in civil war. We backed the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak and stood by idly as the Egyptian military conducted a coup against a democratically elected government. So much for supporting democracy. Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons and has more regional influence than before G.W. Bush declared it to be part of the Axis of Evil and launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We remain intertwined in the Israeli-Palestinian issue and simply lack the political resolve to either force an accomodation between these states or disengage and allow them to settle their issues once and for all. And, now, we are boxed in a corner in Syria and are about to undertake military strikes which will destroy much of Assad’s air force and command and control and tip the balance of power in favor of the rebels; we’ll then layer a “no fly” zone over rebel held territory and extend that zone as the rebels capture additional ground. Assad’s purported (but unproven) use of chemical weapons is our excuse to use force and support a regime change; the use of force has nothing to do with punishing Assad for his purported use of chemicals. And the end state of our upcoming war with Syria? Another failed state (likely in civil war) that increases instability in the Middle East and increases the threats to our national security interests. Taken together, we have over a decade of failed policy in the Middle East, and our planned actions against Syria will only serve to make worse that failed policy and heighten (not lessen) the threats to our national security interests. It’s a monumental mess.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive
 

@JFalmog
There are rape houses all over the world, including apparently Cleveland O. As for tinpots stealing from their own people, again, there are a lot of places to shoot at. National policy is simply the safety and prosperity of Americans. No more. No less. Is Syria threatening the sea lanes? Any nukes aimed at the West? Nope. Clinton concluded the same thing about E.Timor & Rwanda and wisely sat them out. Like Melber said, Obama can’t guarantee a limited war, because no one knows how.

Posted by Bagehot | Report as abusive
 

Came in a Dove, no molded into a Hawk. Pummeled with the Lobby from every direction, every day. He’s not speaking with conviction. (reminds me of Powell with his charts).
How’s that Citizen United working out for ya America?

Posted by mmcg | Report as abusive
 

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