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.
Members of the Free Syrian Army chatting in front of a T-72 tank parked in a secret location close to al-Rami village.
In search of popular and congressional support for a limited and narrow strike on Syria, President Barack Obama has contended that the aim of military action would be to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime for its presumed use of chemical weapons and deter it from the further use of such horrific arms. The possible Russia-brokered deal that has emerged in the face of Obama's threatened attack—Syria submitting its chemical weapons to international control—could prevent a US assault on Syria and yield Obama a diplomatic victory. But he would have to settle for an incomplete win. Assad would presumably not be able to launch another massive chemical weapons attack, but the Syrian dictator would not be truly punished for his military's use of chemical weapons.
Under the no-details-yet arrangement being pursued by Washington, Moscow, and the United Nations, Assad would presumably give up control of his chemical weapons stock. How that happens remains to be seen. Will he hand over these arms to the UN or another international agency for destruction? Will he allow inspectors to monitor and guard his storage facilities? Will he truly honor the agreement and not stash some chemical weapons in a hiding place? But any regimen would certainly make it difficult, if not impossible, for Assad to once again use chemical weapons against his foes. Moreover, Vladimir Putin and Russia would now be on the hook, essentially guarantors that Assad would not again resort to such arms. And given that Russia is Assad's No. 1 sponsor, Assad could not afford to tick off Moscow. So no matter how imperfect the international control system might be, there will be plenty of incentive for Assad to keep his hands off chemical weapons—and for Russia to lean on him. (Of course, in extreme circumstances—say, a situation in which the survival of the regime is at stake—Assad and his Russian pals might rejigger their calculations.) Consequently, a deal would likely achieve what Obama has sought: deterring Assad from further chemical weapons attacks.
Yet the accord in the works has no punitive aspect. Assad will not be held accountable for the August 21 attack near Damascus that killed 1400 civilians, including many children. And he will be able to continue slaughtering others with conventional means. Will other tyrants get the message that using chemical weapons will not be accepted by the international community?
Still, the possible unintended consequences of a punitive strike on Syria remain: civilian casualties, shifting the balance of power in favor of Al Qaeda-connected rebels, and creating more chaos and conflict in Syria and the region. Is punishing Assad worth potentially destabilizing the country further? (A collapse of the Syrian regime could lead to a WMD free-for-all there.) If this deal solidifies—and that's a good-sized if—Obama might have to accept deterrence as the net gain. Afterward, he can focus on the tougher challenge of resolving the Syrian conflict and bringing Assad to justice.
Here's why President Barack Obama is in a jam: He cannot obtain support for a military strike against Syria within Congress and the public at large by simply saying "trust me," and he cannot (at least with the public) provide a full explanation of the costs and benefits of this military action.
On Tuesday night, Obama will deliver an Oval Office speech to try to sway the American public to support the assault (unless somehow the Russia-brokered deal to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control comes together), and he and his aides keep emphasizing that the attack will be limited, narrow, and tailored—"unbelievably small," as Secretary of State John Kerry put it. But the task at hand remains a difficult one. The strike would have to achieve a very particular aim (punishing Bashar al-Assad and deterring his regime from the further use of chemical weapons) without yielding a variety of negative consequences, including causing excessive civilian casualties, changing the balance of power on the ground to the benefit of opposition forces aligned with Al Qaeda, triggering counterattacks against US or Israeli targets, and/or prompting more chaos and conflict in Syria and the region. And for a war-weary public, it is not easy to sort out the odds of success and failure without access to the best information the administration possesses.
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.