In March 2011, President Obama committed the United States to action in Libya that involved roughly 100 cruise missile firings, 12 U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean, and 75 U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft including B-2 bombers. And the Libyan case involved no use of chemical warfare by Muammar Qadhafi. Still, the president saw no reason to seek a congressional vote.
This context makes his claim that he must seek a vote now, in the Syrian case, unintelligible. It cannot be a matter of principle, or the principle would have applied to intervention in Libya as well. From all appearances, the president either lost his nerve, or more likely read opinion polls suggesting that intervention would be widely unpopular. He came to this decision abruptly, after sending out his new secretary of state to make two powerful, emotional, and affecting war speeches that explained why we must act. And he came to this decision, by all accounts now appearing in the press, without even consulting Secretary of State John Kerry, relying instead on his mostly young and comparatively inexperienced White House staff.
This erratic conduct leaves U.S. foreign policy in a shambles. A few examples should suffice. Who, in Jerusalem or Tehran, will now believe that "all options are on the table" and that the president might really use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Which neighbor of China, facing that nation's rising military power and hoping for America to offset it, will now believe that the "pivot to Asia" has any real military content? Who in Moscow or Beijing will now think this president is a leader who must be feared?
This delay in striking Syria will also make any eventual strikes less effective. In 2007, when Israel struck the Syrian nuclear reactor then under construction, Israel and the United States engaged in elaborate and successful efforts to maintain secrecy until decisions were made and the strike finally launched. Why? Because it was obvious that Syrian President Bashar Assad could take such steps as putting human hostages (foreigners, political prisoners, or children, for example) at the site if he discovered our intentions. Now we have given him weeks to take steps to protect the chemical weapons-related sites in this manner, and to move the materials to new locations. The president said this would make no difference, providing this evidence: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has "indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive."
First of all, what mission is that? No one knows the proposed size and target list, of course. If the mission is to protect the president from his "red line" comment of last year and make a symbolic show, it is not time-sensitive; it is not useful, either. Indeed, the narrower the proposed mission, the less time-sensitive it is.
Second, are we to be reassured by this vague comment from Dempsey, who has spent the entire last year explaining why a strike at Syria would be disastrous and is nearly impossible anyway, requiring hundreds of air sorties in advance? Unfortunately, the general's interventions in policymaking on Syria, which have gone far beyond his expertise and proper role, have eliminated him as a reliable guide.
Surely this episode will be studied in schools of government for decades, as an example of how foreign policy should never be conducted: without apparent guiding principle, unpredictably, by fits and starts, and via statements and speeches that are misleading if they are not incoherent.
Does anyone know what the president now really wants? The spectrum of theories ranges from really wanting a "no" vote that takes him off the hook to seeking a robust majority for "yes" that allows quiet expansion of the target list so that a great blow can be struck against Assad. When the president leads us into military action this way, his own goals and tactics shifting by the week, it is not surprising that he has not been able to garner much support.
I favor a strike at Syria, and did before the chemical weapons use by Assad. I thought two years ago that "Assad must go" and was glad the president appeared to reach that conclusion. I thought it shameful that the United States then did nothing to help the rebellion against Assad. It seemed to me foolish and dangerous that we watched from the sidelines while rebel groups seeking our help were decimated and Islamist groups got plenty of cash and guns from the Gulf states, while jihadis arrived in the thousands. I thought it incredible that a major policy change in June, to giving military help to the rebels, was announced via a White House staffer — and then even more incredible that in the months since, no such aid has flowed.
The congressional vote will be difficult for many Republicans, in part because of their resentment at the way this administration has pilloried them for four and half years. I share the resentment, as a former Bush White House staffer. I recall very well the accusations of "unilateralism" that Democrats, including thenSenator Obama, hurled at us — when we intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq armed with congressional votes, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and broad coalitions of dozens of nations. Now Obama has destroyed those coalitions, and seeks approval to use force with one sole ally at hand, France, and without any U.N. vote.
I would give him that authority, to be sure, but I would ask for something more from the White House, something entirely missing today: clarity of purpose, and an explanation that links purpose to tactics. In my view, this president set out, four and half years ago, to reduce American power in the world, and to "break the habits" (as he put it in his 2008 Berlin speech) that got us into Iraq and Afghanistan. Those habits appear to have included what he saw as militarism, interventionism, bullying, and a sense of America as a country with an historic mission of world leadership. He has delivered: American leadership is receding all over the world, as everyone from Japanese and South Koreans to Saudis and Israelis will tell you. Now he seeks authority to use military force, but has done it in a way that rather than restoring some sense of power and leadership may manage to undermine America's international role even further. Congress can, by its questioning of senior officials, in the floor debate, and in the terms of its resolutions, perhaps restore some of what we have lost.
Despite this administration's incompetence, the United States and our allies will be worse off, and our enemies emboldened, if Congress votes no. The time to reject Obama's failures in foreign and domestic policy is on Election Day 2014, not in the Syria vote.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.