Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
President Barack Obama has a tough task this week, as he seeks to win congressional support—particularly among his skeptical Democratic comrades—for a limited military strike on Syria in retaliation for the regime's presumed use of chemical weapons. But as the White House tries to whip up support on Capitol Hill and within the public at large, it is conveying something of a mixed message.
On Monday morning, UN ambassador Samantha Power was on NPR, as part of the administration's full-court press. A onetime journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for a gripping book on modern genocides, Power is a particularly effective spokesperson for Obama on an issue concerning mass murder and humanitarian imperatives. She was asked about GOP Rep. Tom Cole's opposition to the resolution authorizing the president to strike Syria. Cole has argued that the Syria conflict is "particularly intractable and particularly nasty. It's a war on many levels. A civil war, a religious war, a proxy war between the Iranians and the Saudis." He contends that there is "no direct security threat to the United States" or its allies and that limited strikes "are not likely to work." Power replied:
President Obama does not want to get involved in this conflict. He wants to degrade Assad's capability of using his [chemical] weapon[s] and affect his cost-benefit calculus because he will use again and again and again. And it's only a matter time before these weapons will fall into the hands of nonstate actors, again imperiling some of our closest allies in the region, but also in the long term hurting the United States.
The key part of that answer was her assertion that the president seeks to stay out of the conflict in Syria. But that's not what the resolution passed last week by the Senate foreign relations committee says. Section 5 of the resolution presents a "statement of policy":
(a) CHANGING OF MOMENTUM ON BATTLEFIELD.—It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.
(b) DEGRADATION OF ABILITY OF REGIME TO USE WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.—A comprehensive United States strategy in Syria should aim, as part of a coordinated international effort, to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.
And Section 6 of the resolution calls for the United States to work for a negotiated political settlement in Syria by providing "all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States."
Though these parts of the resolution are closer to recommendations than authorizations of specific actions, they do put the Obama administration on record as being involved in the conflict, if only by assisting one or more of the warring factions. And, of course, Obama in June authorized the CIA to covertly train and arm supposedly moderate rebel forces in Syria—though the CIA has reportedly not yet begun handing out weapons to opposition forces. (The program may soon be turned over to US special forces.)
So the United States is already involved in the conflict. When Power insists that the president does not want to get involved, what she really means is deeply involved (as in, with combat troops). This parsing shows how complicated the situation is, and how difficult it is for the White House to present a clear message. Obama wants to launch a military assault to deter Assad from the use of chemical weapons, but he doesn't want to defeat Assad; he wants to steer clear of participation in the wider conflict, though he is providing support to players in that ongoing civil war. The White House can certainly defend such a policy, given the complexities of the situation, but it does contain a fair bit of yin and yang. No wonder many of his own Democrats have yet to rally to Obama's call.
The conventional snark on President Barack Obama's Syria strategy is that he's made a hash of it. The other day, I bumped into a former Obama administration official who informed me his jaw hit the floor when he watched the president on Saturday announce he would seek congressional authorization for a limited military strike on Bashar al-Assad's regime in retaliation for its presumed use of chemical weapons last month. "Why make this more complicated?" this frustrated ex-official asked. And a House Democrat I encountered who supports a strike—and who has been enlisted by House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to persuade progressive Ds to vote for the president's Syria resolution—was apoplectic: "The one thing this president knows is how dysfunctional and obstructionist the [Republican-controlled] House is. Why would he stake his presidency on it?" This lawmaker was pessimistic that enough House Democrats could be coaxed into voting for the resolution; he was not making any progress with his partymates opposed to a strike. "We don't have the votes," he declared—and he was damn angry at Obama.
With his decision to seek congressional approval for an attack, Obama created a political whirlpool. He exacerbated the growing schism on the right that pits tea party isolationists—led by possible presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), other likely 2016ers, rushing to catch up—versus the coalition of hawks commanded by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and neocons who yearn for a deeper and larger intervention in Syria than the president envisions. This split has the potential to turn into an ideological civil war within the GOP during the next presidential campaign. Meanwhile, House Republicans are deeply divided (unlike during the run-up to the Iraq war), with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership crew on the president's side and rank-and-file House GOPers, enwrapped in Obama hatred, accusing the president of misleading the world and engaging in conspiratorial warmongering.
In a tough-worded statement delivered in the Rose Garden this afternoon, President Barack Obama made a case for launching a limited military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack mounted presumably by regime forces near Damascus earlier this month. "This menace must be confronted," Obama declared. This was no surprise. The Obama administration has clearly been heading toward such a decision. But in an unexpected move, Obama said that it was not necessary to rush into such an attack—his military advisers had assured him that such an assault could be effective even if taken weeks from now—and that he would seek authorization from Congress before ordering an attack on the Syrian regime.
With these remarks—the president took no questions—Obama has put Congress on the hot seat. In the years since a Vietnam-shocked Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, members of Congress have often eagerly ducked taking a vote on military actions launched by a president. Routinely, congressional leaders have complained about a lack of consultation from the president without demanding a hard-and-fast chance to accept joint responsibility for a military action. (See Libya.) In recent days, while House and Senate leaders have called for consultation, none have said they must be allowed to vote on strike (while some back-benchers have indeed demanded a vote.)
So Obama is now saying, you want consultation, I'll see you on that and raise you a full (and apparently binding) vote. Notably, he did not say whether he might still go forward with an attack, if Congress spurns him. Some folks—particularly hawks and neocons yearning for a strike—will, no doubt, blast the president for wimping out on executive privilege. Others will see this as a historic moment, when the president rejiggered the constitutional balance on power. But this quasi-decision certainly will lead to a robust debate on not only what to do in Syria but also the fundamental question of who is responsible for waging acts of war within a democracy.
(UPDATE) Here is the full transcript of Obama's remarks:
Good afternoon, everybody. Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century. Yesterday the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people.
Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place. And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see -- hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children -- young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.
This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.
In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.
Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.
Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I'm prepared to give that order.
But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.
Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.
In the coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every member with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America's national security. And all of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.
I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable. As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.
Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.
A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited. I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end. But if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we just acknowledge the costs of doing nothing.
Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
Make no mistake -- this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.
So just as I will take this case to Congress, I will also deliver this message to the world. While the U.N. investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted.
I don't expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made. Privately we’ve heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action.
And finally, let me say this to the American people: I know well that we are weary of war. We’ve ended one war in Iraq. We’re ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military. In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. And that's why we’re not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else’s war.
Instead, we’ll continue to support the Syrian people through our pressure on the Assad regime, our commitment to the opposition, our care for the displaced, and our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people.
But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations. We aren’t perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities.
So to all members of Congress of both parties, I ask you to take this vote for our national security. I am looking forward to the debate. And in doing so, I ask you, members of Congress, to consider that some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment.
Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time; it’s about who we are as a country. I believe that the people’s representatives must be invested in what America does abroad, and now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say. And we lead with the belief that right makes might -- not the other way around.
We all know there are no easy options. But I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions. And neither were the members of the House and the Senate. I’ve told you what I believe, that our security and our values demand that we cannot turn away from the massacre of countless civilians with chemical weapons. And our democracy is stronger when the President and the people’s representatives stand together.
I’m ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.
Just because you should do something doesn't mean you ought to.
That might sum up one way of thinking about whether the United States should bomb Syria in response to the horrific chemical weapons attack presumably launched by regime forces against civilians earlier this month. The assault, which led to the deaths of 1,400 Syrians, including children, was a dramatic step over President Barack Obama's "red line" and prompted the administration to move toward a punitive strike that would be designed not to affect the ongoing balance of power in the continuing Syrian civil war but to deter President Bashar al-Assad and his military forces from further use of chemical weapons. Immediately, a trans-Atlantic debate ensued over whether such military action would be appropriate, effective, and wise. And this afternoon—as the White House released a four-page unclassified assessment declaring that Assad regime officials "were witting of and directed the attack on August 21"—Secretary of State John Kerry made a public statement presenting the case for a limited attack.
In the face of public opinion overwhelmingly opposed to US military action in Syria, Kerry argued that the United States had a humanitarian obligation to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons and a duty to preserve America's credibility and that of the civilized world:
It matters to our security and the security of our allies. It matters to Israel. It matters to our close friends Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, all of whom live just a stiff breeze away from Damascus. It matters to all of them where the Syrian chemical weapons are—and if unchecked they can cause even greater death and destruction to those friends. And it matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries, whose policy has challenged these international norms, are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say.
Killing people—no doubt, some civilians would perish in a limited strike—to demonstrate credibility and toughness is not the most high-minded of arguments. Should innocents die because Obama (perhaps in a misguided move) drew a line in the sand? But there is some merit to the contention that a tyrant should not be permitted to deploy unconventional weapons with impunity.
A few days ago, I asked David Kay, the former UN weapons inspector who led the search for the nonexistent WMD in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, why he supported an attack on Assad in response to the chemical weapon massacre. He noted:
It is a terror weapon of extraordinary power…I believe if Assad gets away with showing other regimes how they can use CW to gain the upper hand in a conflict…[it] is something we should not want. Imagine if the Libyan rebellion had not occurred first, but were to be about to start. In this interconnected world we should want to maintain a ban on the use of weapons that can have large and sudden impacts. To kill 100,000 has taken Assad more than a year…Unless we now take action the wrong lesson is likely to have been learned.
It is hard to watch the videos of the victims of the chemical weapons attack and shrug. But all actions have their costs—even justifiable actions. And the question here is this: Can Obama mount a limited, targeted, and effective strike that will indeed deter Assad without drawing the United States deeper into the ongoing civil war, causing unacceptable unintended consequences (say, a high number of civilian casualties), and/or further inflaming conflicts within the region? That's a tall order. Perhaps he and his military aides can devise such an assault and thread this needle. But Kerry, who took no questions after delivering his statement, neglected to discuss various options. Which was natural, for the administration understandably has no desire to telegraph the specifics of what apparently now is an inevitable strike (with or without any explicit approval from Congress, which is hardly rushing to vote on the matter).
In his tough-worded statement, Kerry, the onetime anti-war activist, resorted to a familiar rhetorical device. "What is the risk of doing nothing?" he asked. (George W. Bush repeatedly used similar language in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.) Yet decrying doing nothing does not justify a specific action. The Hippocratic Oath counsels: First, do no harm. A military strike would do some harm. Will the gain outweigh the harm? Obama is often adept at working through complicated calculations. But in war—and in the Middle East—intelligent calculations can look rather different after the fact.
The drums of war are beating, as various news reports state that President Barack Obama and his European allies are close to launching some sort of military attack against Syria. But one question is how big the bang will be. The White House has signaled that whatever comes will be strictly a punitive strike in retaliation for the Assad regime's presumed use of chemical weapons against civilians. It will not be an action aimed at toppling Bashar al-Assad or changing the overall strategic dynamic of the ongoing civil war in Syria. The supposed goal is to deter Assad from resorting to chemical weapons again. Foreign policy experts disagree—of course—on whether any assault of this nature would achieve that end, and such an action could have unintended consequences (say, a host of dead civilians) that might render it not a clear-cut success. But the band of neocons that led the United States into the Iraq War have quickly moved to seize on the administration's inclination to mount a punitive strike in order to draw the nation further into the conflict in Syria.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Policy Initiative—which was started by Bill Kristol, Dan Senor, Robert Kagan, and other hawkish-minded policy wonks—sent a letter to Obama, urging him to slam Assad in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria: "At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons."
But the letter—which was signed by Elliott Abrams, Fouad Ajami, Max Boot, Ellen Bork, Eliot Cohen, Douglas Feith, Joseph Lieberman, Clifford May, Joshua Muravchik, Danielle Pletka, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Kristol, Kagan, Senor, and dozens of others—demands that Obama go further. It calls on the president to provide "vetted moderate elements of Syria's armed opposition" with the military support necessary to strike regime units armed with chemical weapons. That is, the neocons and their allies have CW-ized their pre-existing demand for the United States to arm the rebels.
And there's more: "The United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad's chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime's airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants." Plus, Obama should not only aid the rebels to thwart additional chemical weapons attacks; he should arm "moderate elements" of the opposition so that they can "prevail against" the Assad regime and the rebel factions affiliated with Al Qaeda or other Islamic extremists. In other words, get in whole hog.
Every sign from the White House indicates that the president does not want the United States to become a major participant in the Syrian conflict, let alone a key player in what could become a three-way civil war. It remains to be seen how Obama can thread the needle with a punitive strike that achieves its punitive goal but that does not lead to deeper US involvement in the war. But for the neocons and others—also signing the letter were Leon Wieseltier, Bernard-Henri Levy, and Tim Pawlenty—this is a moment to exploit. They want to turn a punitive strike into a commitment for war, and they have redeployed an argument from a decade ago: "The world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass of destruction—is now watching to see how you respond."
Here's the full letter:
August 27, 2013
The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has once again violated your red line, using chemical weapons to kill as many as 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus. You have said that large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria would implicate "core national interests," including "making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies [and] our bases in the region." The world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass of destruction—is now watching to see how you respond.
We urge you to respond decisively by imposing meaningful consequences on the Assad regime. At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship's military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.
Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.
Left unanswered, the Assad regime's mounting attacks with chemical weapons will show the world that America's red lines are only empty threats. It is a dangerous and destabilizing message that will surely come to haunt us—one that will certainly embolden Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability despite your repeated warnings that doing so is unacceptable. It is therefore time for the United States to take meaningful and decisive actions to stem the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and help shape and influence the foundations for the post-Assad Syria that you have said is inevitable.