President Obama surprised allies and enemies alike when he stepped back over the weekend from plans to bombard
Syria in response to Bashar al–Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Taking policy toward errant regimes in the Islamic world off autopilot—attack first, look into it later (if at all)—was an intelligent step. We now have time to consider consequences no one has yet mentioned. Let us look at them.
National security hawks have been baiting Obama on the Syria question ever since his ill-advised “red line” assertion late last year. In this context, the president’s tactic of deferring military intervention until Congress debates and approves it is very accomplished political snooker--two smart moves in one go.
Commentators on the Sunday gab shows suggested that were Congress to vote now on the Syria plan, the administration would not get the votes it needs.
“This decision is now thrown into the gridlock of American politics,” Vali Nasr, a former administration adviser with an eagle’s eye on the Middle East, said on George Stephanopoulos’ ABC news show, “This Week.” O.K., but all outcomes could well play to Obama’s favor now, and some good things can come of this somewhat astonishing turn in events. Can, as in maybe, maybe not.
If Obama does not get the backing of Congress—both the Senate and house would have to approve funding for the mission, an estimated $1 billion a month. And no green light from the Hill gives political cover if Obama really does tilt away from military action: A Democrat in the White House puts down his six-guns and no trigger-happy hawk can call him a milquetoast dude out from the East.
The other significant dimension of the weekend’s developments concerns the imperial presidency, as scholars call it—meaning the steady concentration of power in the Executive and the consequent weakening of constitutional checks and balances. Don’t look now, but Obama may just have taken a small step toward reversing this long-running imbalance, especially if the Syria crisis proves any kind of precedent. This would be of historical importance.
Many historians trace the imperial presidency (so named by Arthur M. Schlesinger in 1973) back to Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Honest Abe’s tough-as-hide politicking for the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Certainly the drift of power toward the White House was essential in waging the Cold War and has grown ever more evident since. Congress will grouse that it is not consulted—grouse but go along.
Advantage Obama once again. In his speech on Saturday he effectively informed his many hecklers on the Hill, You’re back in the loop now. If you want a risky attack on Assad, put your names on it. We’ll share the glory of success or take all the heat together if a mess ensues. Or we will go about this otherwise.
We have, then, some time. Obama just bought two weeks of it, given that Congress does not reconvene until September 9. Use it well, Mr. Obama. That means thinking about the costs and consequences of another American intervention with only the flimsiest international agreement.
Here’s my list for President Obama:
• You may not intend to topple Assad, but what do you have in mind if you end up doing so? Two things to think about here. One is Iraq. The Bush people had precisely nothing in mind when they moved on Saddam Hussein, and you can read about the result in a decade’s newspapers. No repeats, please, and you have had no plan up to now. Two is old Marshal Tito, a tough s.o.b., but he made the mold for nations composed of antagonistic ethnicities, religions, and sects. Everybody sits at the table and everybody gets a slice. It turns no nation of atavistic enmities into a democracy overnight, but it will keep one together while the political piece matures.
• Secretary of State Kerry insists that a political solution in Syria, beginning with a Geneva conference, remains the core of policy. Do you and your people understand how instantly devastating a missile attack of whatever precision would be in this respect? The alienation between West and East on the Syria question would be more or less complete. Why should Assad consider a conference on anything other than his political grave? Why should the Russians make him go? Or the Iranians?
• Yes, well, the Iranians. You are already in error, Mr. President, in blocking Iran from a Syria conference. We can afford our uselessly pouty Cuba policy, but you will not make Tehran another Havana. This is major league ball. Iran’s new, plainly reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, has done everything to signal his desire to deal short of sending you a Hallmark card. Cruise missiles risk gutting any chance to work with him on Syria (as he would like to do) as well as on the nuclear question (ditto). Equally, the Israeli leadership thinks violence is the only answer with the Iranians. First-class diplomacy with Rouhani could help you prove them wrong. But not if you move on the Syrians.
• There are economic risks to consider, and presidents ought to break the habit of leaving them out. Oil and gas prices are already spiking: Domestic crude hit a two-year high last week, and gas followed the pattern. If the crisis spreads regionally, some analysts say, we risk $150 oil. That is a recovery-buster, as would be any prolonged period of misdirected national energies. More broadly, our incessant insistence on unilateral action is a fantasy we can no longer afford. Multilateralism is the game now, whether or not the president’s men like the thought, and we are not building the kind of dense, networked relations necessary to play in the global economy. Displays of might are a big negative in this respect.
Obama may go into Syria all by his lonesome, in the end. He left this prospect on the table over the weekend. But I am not the only one to wonder if his heart and best thoughts have ever been truly in this caper. He has pushed Syria into the political swamp at just the right moment. He and Kerry have a window for cogitation, and for listening to what the U.N. has to say—an act of multilateralism that would instantly benefit the “credibility” Washington now frets and sweats about.