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Blunder after blunder. That’s been the story of Barack Obama’s policy toward Syria.
In April 2011, Obama said dictator Bashar Assad “had to go.” But he did little or nothing to speed him on his way.
At an Aug. 20, 2012, press conference, in campaign season, he was asked about Syria’s chemical weapons and said “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
On Aug. 21, 2013, a year and a day afterwards, chemical weapons were used in large quantities in the Damascus suburbs a 20-minute drive from United Nations inspectors.
Last week all signs — strong statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, leaks of detailed military plans — indicated that Obama would soon order what he described as “a shot across the bow.”
But on Saturday, Aug. 31, he announced that he would ask Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the use of military force — even though he believed he had authority to do it unilaterally. That means delay until Congress assembles Sept. 9 — time for Assad to put his military assets out of harm’s way.
There are strong arguments for voting against a resolution, the exact wording of which is not established at this writing.
Obama’s “limited, tailored” approach seems certain not to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons and may well not deter him from using them. And we have the president’s word that he is not seeking “regime change.”
And in the unlikely event that air strikes do undermine the Assad regime, we have no assurance that an alternative would be preferable. Al Qaeda sympathizers may gain the upper hand.
At the same time, there are strong arguments against a vote against a resolution. Undermining the power of even a feckless American president risks undermining the power of the presidency — and of America — for years.
Crossing a president’s “red line,” however improvidently drawn, should carry consequences, however limited.
Many in Congress, and not just Republicans, surely resent being called upon to authorize an action which public opinion polls indicate is widely unpopular, particularly among the Independent voters who can determine election outcomes in many states and congressional districts.
If a vote were taken this week, the resolution would be rejected — just as a similar resolution was, unexpectedly, rejected in the British House of Commons on Aug. 29.
Some Democrats want the resolution to strictly limit the president, while Republicans like Sen. John McCain want a broader permit that would allow for regime change.
Presidents usually prevail on issues like this, where they can argue that national security is at stake, and the administration can probably round up enough votes in the Democratic-majority Senate.
That will be much harder in the Republican-majority House. Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have both endorsed a resolution.
But Boehner and Democrat Chris Van Hollen have both called this a conscience vote and said their parties will not whip the issue. The White House will have to do the hard work of rounding up the votes.
At midweek the Washington Post listed only 17 House members favoring military action and 130 opposed or leaning against.
Most House Democrats voted against the Iraq war resolution in October 2002, when most voters favored it. Their party has dovish instincts going back to the Vietnam War and has been largely ignored by the administration since it lost its House majority in 2010.
House Republicans, the object of Obama’s continued denunciations and disdain, are not inclined to trust him at all. Many surely believe they’re being set up as fall guys for a president whose chief political goal is regaining the House majority for Democrats in 2014.
That suspicion was surely enhanced in Sweden on Wednesday when Obama said, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”
But the world is not clamoring to enforce it. The only nation contemplating joining the United States in military action is France. That’s 38 fewer allies than joined the United States after the supposed unilateralist George W. Bush, with congressional authorization, ordered troops into Iraq.
Former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has argued that Obama’s foreign policy is designed to restrain and reduce America’s power in the world. The twists and turns of his policy toward Syria certainly seem to be having that effect.
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