Syria: For Once, Congress is Asking the Right Questions

Posted on September 2, 2013

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Maybe the 10-year Iraq War, too eagerly launched based on faulty intelligence, no clear national security threat, and no vision of an end state, is too fresh in American minds.

On Saturday, President Obama asked Congress for approval to launch military operations against Syria.  He claims the authority to act on his own (and recent presidents’ actions have certainly set a precedent), but says it is important to have a national debate first.

Well, hallelujah.  Maybe, just maybe, this episode might teach our Fearless Leaders something about “drawing lines in the sand.”  Bush the First famously drew his line in the sand in advance of the 1991 Gulf War, with coalition forces already building up; when Saddam did not withdraw from Kuwait, Bush was ready and launched Desert Storm.  That was the very last time the “line in the sand” worked out well for us.

Bush the Second, perhaps in imitation of Daddy, drew his own line in the sand, but that line was based on Iraq proving a negative, a tough thing to do.  Saddam insisted he did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction; the Bush administration insisted that he did, and put on quite the dog-and-pony show for Congress and the UN to “prove” it.  Well, we know how that worked out.

That brings us to today.  Something bad has obviously happened in Syria; we see the photos of the dead civilians.  President Obama claims that intelligence reports indicate that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on their own citizens.  SecState Kerry claimed on Sunday that an “independent” US lab identified the agent as sarin gas. And yet – and yet.  Obama has not shared the exact proof with Congress; the UN investigators have just returned from Syria but no report is yet issued; and most importantly, the perpetrator has not been identified (it’s not clear that all of Syria’s chemical stockpiles were still under government control).  Analysts are warning publicly that “this is not a slam dunk.”

Remember where the “slam dunk” phrase came from?  George Tenet, 2002, supposedly referring to the crap intelligence that was used to justify the Iraq War (although Tenet later claimed that “slam dunk” referred to the probability of public support for the war, and not the intelligence about the WMDs).

So anyway… if the 2002 “slam dunk” was erroneous, and this is not an intelligence “slam dunk,” well… just sayin’.  A little caution is in order here, not least because whatever happens in world at large, the US response to events should always, always be weighed in terms of how the events impact our national interests and security, and how our response will impact our national interests and security.  As horrible as the Syrian conflict is, I’m not sure it warrants our armed intervention.

For once, for the first time in over a decade, Congress is asking the right questions.  I’m pleased, but a little stunned.

Lately, our Congress has had quite the well-earned reputation for not playing nicely together.  They couldn’t cooperate on health care.  They couldn’t cooperate on a budget.  They reflexively vote against each other at every turn, on every topic, no matter how important it might be to We The People.  But this! – this war drum actually has both sides of the aisle pulling together in the same direction for once (somebody take a picture, because I doubt this will last).

I’m no fan of Speaker of the House John Boehner, but I like hearing this from him, as reported by the Associated Press:

“What is the intended effect of the potential military strikes?”  … Boehner wrote that in light of the administration’s contention that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its people, Obama should provide “a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action – which is a means, not a policy – will secure U.S. objectives”…  Boehner asked Obama to “personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve American credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy.” … The speaker also pressed the president to provide a legal justification for any U.S. military action.

Yes!!  Then there is this from Adam Smith, of the House Armed Services Committee:

… an attack might be ineffective and might draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.  “Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of ‘doing something’ will not secure our interests in Syria,” Smith said in a statement.

Rand Paul:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States, and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.”

Jim Inhofe:

… informed the administration that he could not support any military strike against Syria unless Obama presents a detailed strategy to Congress and provides a defense budget to support any action.

Mac Thornberry, speaking on PBS Newshour:

“I think it’s incumbent upon the president to go to Congress and the American people and explain exactly what he wants to do and how it will achieve those objectives. Just the desire to do something for these atrocities, which are horrible, is not enough.”

The world is full of nuclear-armed crazies like North Korea, or rogues like Iran; these are arguably a greater security threat to us than Syria is.  The world is full of human-rights atrocities like Sudan, failed states like Somalia, decades-long insurgencies like Colombia; these are arguably just as worthy of humanitarian intervention as Syria.  We have not intervened in those other countries; why should Syria be different?

And Congress is asking the hard questions.  Either the Apocalypse is upon us, or else it is pretty dang important to keep America out of yet another war. We’re tired of the war in Afghanistan, even though that country was clearly implicated in 9/11 (that war is still going on more than twelve years later, by the way).  We were tired of the war in Iraq, which went on for ten years despite a lot of questions – after the fact – about the justification.   So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Congress is pushing back.  At any rate, I am a little relieved.  I’m hoping this forestalls any US military action on Syria.

Of course, I’d respect Congress a little more if they actually stuck around to actively debate this the way the Brits have, instead of wandering off on vacation… but then again, if debate is delayed until they return to work this month, that should allow time for the UN to report its findings, and time for a little more deliberation.

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