An off-the-cuff comment by President Obama about red lines placed him in the current political quagmire on Syria. Thanks to another off-the-cuff remark, this time by Secretary Kerry, Obama has an opportunity to navigate out of this debacle while accomplishing all his objectives.
Obama’s stated objective in Syria is to “degrade Al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons against his own people and uphold the international norm against the use of such weapons in general.” An additional objective, occasionally acknowledged by Obama and his surrogates, is to signal to Iran and the rest of the world that U.S. warnings are credible. A critical domestic objective is to push Congress to take on its responsibility in the declaration of war and addressing international security issues, such as the threat of WMDs. Finally, there is the undiscussed objective of Obama’s legacy — will he become yet another U.S. President who gets the country mired in a poorly thought out war in the Middle East? Or will he earn his Nobel Peace Prize?
Would the military strike accomplish the objectives?
The planned military strike on Syria is unlikely to accomplish any of the above. The degradation of Assad’s capabilities will be limited at best, since the U.S. will only use missiles and target weapons caches that have now been moving around the country for over a month. Far from signaling the credibility of the U.S., this limited strike highlights the extent to which Americans are opposed to international military action, and the growing difficulty of coming to any political agreements between the White House and Congress. These facts are likely to more than offset any concerns by Iran about a future U.S. military strike.
A military strike will definitely lead to significant responses by Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, possibly with clandestine support from Russia. Widespread violence against U.S. and allies’ interests around the world will inevitably pull Obama into a spiraling conflict in the region, potentially worse than anything the U.S. has faced in recent history.
As for domestic politics, Obama has done the right thing by re-establishing the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches when it comes to military action. However, as Sen. McCain has said, a Congressional vote against a strike on Syria would be catastrophic. Obama has already staked out the position that he has the legal authority to move forward with this attack. If he does so in spite of Congress’ disapproval, he might create a constitutional crisis that he, as a constitutional law expert, would obviously be loath to do. If he acquiesces to Congress’ will, he would be terminally disabling the Executive’s capacity for managing international relations. Russia is already testing those waters by sending a delegation to speak directly to the U.S. Congress, bypassing the Executive altogether.
Would the proposed deal accomplish the objectives?
The proposed deal, on the other hand, accomplishes all those objectives. Forcing Al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles (and presumably establish an international inspection regime) may well disable a far larger quantity of such weapons than a limited U.S. military strike can. Additionally, it would force the international community to take a more active role in policing both Al-Assad and other regimes that might consider using chemical weapons in the future. And it would “save” the military option for later and lock Al-Assad into a carefully-enforced agreement. Any failure to abide by that agreement (hiding chmical stockpiles or by any further chemical attacks) would guarantee a unified international response, likely including military strikes.
President Obama should also maintain the pressure on Congress by taking the proposed agreement — including commitments for punitive steps if Al-Assad fails to uphold his end — to them for ratification. This would signal the unified commitment by American political representatives to achieving the President’s declared foreign policy objectives, while denying Russia the opportunity to meddle in internal U.S. political processes.
Perhaps most important of all, it creates a possibility that has thus far eluded the international community: pursuing a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. If Obama pulls off a peaceful solution to the chemical weapons crisis, and starts building on it to get close to resolving the overall conflict, he will have indeed earned his Nobel Prize.
President Obama: through your administrations entire political and diplomatic weight behind establishing this agreement. The American people deserve it, the Syrian people deserve it, and your legacy demands it.