There is a deep, extremely sad irony to President Obama’s actions in Syria. On the one hand he feels beholden to act based on the “red line” comments he made last year. To not follow through on his explicit threat would be to appear weak and ineffectual on the world stage. But on the other hand, to engage in a military intervention would contradict his very clear record on executive power.
“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat,” then-senator Obama told the Boston Globe in a candidate questionnaire. “History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch.”
At the time the question was directed at Iran, a nation that was fanning the flames of sectarian violence in the region and threatening the world by kickstarting a nuclear enrichment program. Yet here we are, on the cusp of intervening in a Syrian civil war between two factions of Islam—one that poses little “imminent threat” to the United States. According to President Obama’s stated rubric that means we likely shouldn’t be involved, and at the very least should require consultation with the legislative branch, and yet he appears ready to authorize a unilateral attack.
Perhaps one could forgive an off-the-cuff response to a candidate questionnaire by someone who was doing his best to get elected. But the limits on executive power, especially in times of armed conflict, are long-held and deep-seated beliefs for Obama.
“What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is a cynical attempt by [officials] to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne,” then-State Senator Barack Obama said in the fall of 2002.
But is that once again where we find ourselves? Unfortunately, there is little way to be sure. Thus far, President Obama has given us little to go on.
“The options we are considering are not about regime change,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “That is not what we’re contemplating here.”
“We have stated it for a long time, that there is no military solution available here, that the way to bring about a better future in Syria is through negotiation and political resolution,” Carney continued.
But a cruise missile strike seems like a very one-sided negotiation. And certainly one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially in light of the military’s apparent concerns with the approach. The Washington Post reported last week that the Obama administration’s plan “is being received with serious reservations by many in the U.S. military.” The officials questioned whether this was a “punitive measure,” openly said the White House “lacks a coherent strategy,” and were troubled by a military objective that “is at best ambiguous.” Those concerns hew closely to an assessment made a month ago by Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Demsey in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“[It] is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state,” Demsey wrote. “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
What we’re left with is an unshakable feeling that we’re attacking simply because we’ve been boxed in by Obama’s words. As the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer editorializes,
Or more accurately, shamed into action. Which is the worst possible reason. A president doesn’t commit soldiers to a war for which he has zero enthusiasm. Nor does one go to war for demonstration purposes.
Want to send a message? Call Western Union. A Tomahawk missile is for killing. A serious instrument of war demands a serious purpose.
Or, as Obama put it in his 2002 speech, “The consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable. We may have occasion in our lifetime to once again rise up in defense of our freedom, and pay the wages of war. But we ought not – we will not – travel down that hellish path blindly.”
Perhaps President Obama is not marching us to war blindly. Maybe his trigger finger is not as itchy as we perceive. But we deserve to know what he’s thinking. And Congress deserves to vote on it. Given his past comments, Obama at least owes us that.