For the record, I generally tend to support military action against our enemies abroad, provided that it is feasible and serves our interests to do so. But before we can say whether the action is feasible and serves our interests, we need to know the objective. What is the objective in military action against Syria? No one seems to know!
John McCain thinks that regime change should be the objective, and actually got that objective written into the resolution that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Strangely, the Democrats didn’t seem to care much what the resolution actually said.) But seeking regime change seems foolish now, since the only rebels still in action against Assad are Islamists who are more dangerous to us than Assad. Regime change would have been a good policy a year ago, when there were still elements in the Syrian civil war who were secular and friendly to the west. But thanks to President Obama’s inaction, those people are all dead or scattered now. Regime change now would serve only to replace an enemy with a worse enemy. (We could effect regime change by occupying the country and installing a new regime ourselves, but that’s obviously not in the cards.)
In any case, regime change is categorically not the aim of the Obama administration, who are pledging to wage an “unbelievably small” campaign. Yes, John Kerry, the Secretary of State (God help us), really did say that. Or, even more bizarrely:
A second senior official, who has seen the most recent planning, offered this metaphor to describe such a strike: If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.
I won’t pretend to understand the Cheerios-with-a-fork analogy, but one thing is certain, if they had an actual objective (e.g., reverse the communist coup in Grenada, destroy Al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan, end Saddam Hussein’s regime), they would express it, and wouldn’t need to resort to this drivel.
Even a very limited objective such as “punish Bashar Assad” might serve, if the attack were to be directed at him personally, but that too is clearly not what they are planning. And, moreover, now that Assad has had weeks of advance warning, it can’t be done anyway. (As Mitch McConnell put it, you don’t send out a “save the date” card to the enemy!)
The bottom line of all of this is that we should not launch an attack against Syria, unless and until we figure out what the purpose for such an attack would be.
However, what Congress should do in regard to authorization is a different question. President Obama did not need to seek and should not have sought Congressional authorization for the kind of action he is contemplating. A limited strike is well within the powers of the commander-in-chief, even under the War Powers Act, which is a dead letter anyway.
But we are where we are. Obama did seek authorization, and Congress ought to grant it. We have only one president at a time, and we need that president’s words to have credibility abroad. We can’t do anything about the problem of President Obama damaging his own credibility with ill-considered, off-the-cuff threats, but we can make sure that he is not further undermined by his own government. (Yes, it’s true, when Democrats controlled Congress they did everything they could to undermine President Bush abroad, but the fact that Democrats did it first would make it no less irresponsible.)
This is not to say that Congress should pass a resolution in favor of an attack against Syria. As above, an attack is a terrible idea at this juncture, and Congress should not pretend otherwise. Instead, Congress should pass a resolution affirming the commander-in-chief’s constitutional authority to take necessary steps to protect US interests in regard to Syria. Basically, Congress should say, “you’re the president, do what you need to do.”
Such a resolution would maintain the president’s credibility abroad (so far as that’s possible) and also side-step the trap that Obama is trying to lay to Republicans. He knows that his policy is desperately unpopular, and he is trying to pass the buck. (Or, as NBC puts it, he is trying to “unilaterally widen the circle of responsibility.”) By affirming the president’s authority without approving of his policy, Congress passes the buck back to the president, where it belongs.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that that’s not going to happen. Feckless in all aspects of this crisis, Obama has done nothing to rally Congress to support him. The word from Capitol Hill is that he doesn’t have the votes either in the House, or even in the Democrat-controlled Senate. That, and not the ridiculous Russian peace proposal, is the reason Obama asked Congress to postpone voting on authorization.