The risk of intervention in Syria
Editors Baltimore Times | 9/6/2013, 6 a.m.
To use a poker term, President Barack Obama has decided to “go all in” on launching a military strike against Syria. Late last month, he seemed determined to strike Syria on his own authority. Then came the sudden and awkward reversal of announced plans, with the president taking the belated, but correct course of seeking congressional authorization.
It was the right thing to do, constitutionally and in terms of practical politics. Congress has too often ceded its war-making responsibility to presidents who would rather not bother with consultation. A longer, wider debate gives Obama the opportunity to convince a skeptical public to support him.
That strategy is not without risk. A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility, Senator John
McCain (R-AZ) told reporters this week after he met with the president. The catastrophe in believability would not be so much for the country but for Obama personally and his administration as a whole. A "no" vote would give Obama a much diminished voice on the world stage.
The White House campaign to build congressional support got off to a strong start when House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and House Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, both often at odds with the president, endorsed a strike against Syria. Boehner said it was something "the United States as a country needs to do."
Boehner faces the toughest selling job in backing Obama. The Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to repudiate its own president. However, the more fractious and less disciplined House spans libertarians who are opposed to any intervention abroad, anti-war Democrats, and hard-core Tea Party-movement supporters who would be opposed to a strike on Syria simply because Obama is for it.
Obama needs to convince the skeptics— this includes a majority of the public and a large majority of his own party in the Congress— that non-military options for punishing Assad have been fully explored, and that his proposed strike wouldn’t just be dipping an American toe into another quagmire to no good end. Americans are justifiably war weary and the president must not overplay our country’s role as the world’s police.
Obama has said that any U.S. operations in Syria would be limited in “scope and duration,” but that choice may be out of his hands once the first missiles are fired. Syrian President Bashar Assad would still retain some capacity to use chemical weapons against the civilian population.
If Assad launches retaliatory strikes, against the U.S. or his own people, things could quickly escalate. To continue the poker analogy, once Obama embarks on this course of action, the U.S. cannot simply stand up and walk away from the table.