What If Congress Says Yes?
Some in Congress now are talking about a new resolution that would pre-authorize the administration to launch "fallback airstrikes"—that is, its desired attack on Syria—after some sort of deadline passed for U.N. action, Syrian action, or perhaps just another mythical red line was crossed. Should Congress say yes yet again to such a scheme or anything like it, nothing will change for the better, and much is likely to change for the worse.
An attack on Syria will demand a response; war works that way, no matter how "surgical" the strikes may be. Other countries, and even terrorists, also tend to imagine that, in such situations, their "credibility" is at stake. Fearing reprisals, the US has already preemptively withdrawn its diplomats from a consulate in Turkey near the Syrian border, and from Lebanon. Security has increased in Iraq, with the already fortress-like US embassy there bracing for attacks, allegedly already being planned by Iranian-sponsored sappers.
Be assured of one thing: bombs and missiles falling in Syria will cause "collateral damage," newspeak for images splashed across the globe of Muslim women and children killed by American weaponry. History has ensured that borders in the Middle East are arbitrary and easily enough ignored. As the US invasion and occupation of Iraq sparked a metastasizing regional Sunni-Shia civil war, so a new intervention in the latest version of that war will lead to further, possibly devastating, and certainly divisive consequences in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. Think of this as a grim domino theory for the new century.
Should a desperate Assad regime in Syria, or an Iranian proxy from Lebanon, retaliate against Israel, the US could wake up to find itself in the middle of a far larger war. Who knows then what a Russia already moving naval forces into the Mediterranean and with a naval base in Syria itself might do, perhaps citing the need to maintain Putin's "credibility"?
Even the most optimistic pundits do not believe a single set of strikes over a limited number of days will have much strategic effect. And what if, after giving up some or all of his chemical weapons, Assad just makes or buys more? The famous comment of General David Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq—"Tell me how this ends"—would need answering again. We didn't like the answer the last time and we won't like it this time.
Of course, something like half of the anti-Assad rebels fight for Islamic fundamentalist outfits. If, however unmeant, the US essentially becomes the air force over Syria for al-Qaeda-branded and other jihadist outfits, unleashing them to take further territory, that would undoubtedly create even more unsettled and unsettling conditions across the region. A rebel victory, aided by US strikes, would certainly give al-Qaeda the sort of sovereign sanctuary the US has been fighting to eliminate globally since the Clinton administration. No serious scenario has been offered in which the civil war in Syria would begin to abate thanks to US bombs and missiles.
With or without an attack, some things will remain constant. Israel destroyed Syria's nascent attempts to build nuclear weapons and would do so again if needed. Iran has played a clever game in the regional proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere—they won in Iraq—and will continue to do so. Since the 1970s, Syria has had stocks of chemical weapons that the Assad regime manufactured itself and has never used them against the United States or any other country, nor have they in 40 years transferred those weapons to any terrorists. There is no reason to believe that will change now, not even as a way to strike back should the US attack first (though the fate of those weapons, should Assad fall under US attacks, no one can possibly know.)
With a US president willing, for the first time in decades, to hand over some part of his decision-making powers to Congress (though he dubiously maintains that it would still be constitutional for him to launch strikes against Syria on his own), the Senate and House of Representatives have a chance to courageously re-insert themselves in war policy. Alternatively, they can once again assure themselves of a comfortable irrelevance. On one thing Obama is certainly right: the world is indeed watching the unfolding spectacle.
What If Congress Says No?
If Congress says no to an attack on Syria, the US may for the first time in 12 years have the chance to change the world for the better. Though this is not an overly dramatic statement, it's also true, as every diplomat knows, that it's easier to break things than fix them.
The world would at least have seen Washington step back after its citizenry told their government that enough is enough. The world would see an America which, in a modest but significant way, was beginning to genuinely absorb the real lessons to be drawn from our post-9/11 actions: that endless war only fuels more war, that living in a world where foreigners are seen mainly as targets brings no peace, that lashing out everywhere means no safety anywhere.
In the wake of a non-attack on Syria, parts of the world might be more open to the possibility that the United States could help open new paths, beginning with a tacit acknowledgement that we were wrong. Nothing can erase the deeds of the past years or those long memories common not just in the Middle East, but to humanity more generally. Certainly, what we did is likely to haunt us for generations. But when in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging. Via Congress, the US can take a small first step toward becoming an "indispensable nation" in more than our own minds.
If Congress says no on Syria, it will, just as the president warns, also be sending a message to Iran—not, however, that the United States lacks the resolve to fight. It seems unlikely, given the past 12 years, that anyone doubts this country's willingness to use force. A clear no from Congress would, in fact, send a message of hope to Iran.
It was only in June that Obama claimed Iran's election of a moderate as president showed that Iranians want to move in a different direction. "As long as there's an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there's no reason why we shouldn't proceed," Obama said. "The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything anytime anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way."
Diplomacy is often a series of little gateway-like tests that, when passed, lead two parties forward. A no on Syria would be such a step, allowing Iran and the United States a possible path toward negotiations that could someday change the face of the Middle East. Only three months ago, Obama himself endorsed such a plan. If Congress says no, it won't destroy credibility with the Iranians; it's likely, in fact, to enhance it. This decision by Congress could empower both parties to proceed to the negotiating table in a more hopeful way. A yes from Congress, on the other hand, could sideline Iranian moderates and slam the door shut on discussions for a long time.
It is clear that partisan politics will play a significant role in Congress's decision. That body is fundamentally a political animal, and the House, of course, faces midterm elections in little more than a year. Still, that's not a terrible thing. After all, for the first time in a long while, when it comes to foreign policy, House members are openly speaking about the influence that a wave of constituent opposition to a Syrian intervention is having on them. They appear to be hearing us speak, even if the impulse isn't just to do the right thing, but to garner votes in 2014.
Should Congress say no, it seems unlikely that a president, isolated at home and abroad, will go to war. Some of Obama's top aides have already been signaling that reality. Despite macho talk in the upper echelons of his administration on his right to ignore Congress, as a constitutional scholar and a savvy politician he would be unlikely to risk the demands for his impeachment and the spectacle of a Constitutional crisis by launching Syrian strikes in the wake of a no vote. All the noise about not backing down and his credibility suffering a catastrophic blow should be taken as so much pre-vote political saber rattling. The president may make foolish decisions, but he certainly is no fool.
By saying no, not again, not this time, the current group of gray men and women who largely make up our Congress have the chance to join some of the giants who have thundered in those chambers in the past. At this moment, that body has the opportunity to choose a new meaning for future anniversaries of 9/11. It could be the day that life went on just as disastrously as previously—or it could be the day that changed everything, and this time for the better.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. Van Buren's next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available March 2014.
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