Barack Obama did not run for President to wage war. He ran for President, and won the election, based on a promise to end two wars. Implied was a promise not to start any new ones. In 2008, Obama won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton essentially because she had voted with President Bush, to authorize the invasion of Iraq, an act he’d opposed. So now, here we are, at the brink of attacking Syria, albeit in a very limited way.
As I have previously posted, the ugly, brutal civil war in Syria is the ultimate lose/lose proposition. There literally are no good options, for the US or for the international community. To leave Bashar al Assad alone to butcher his own people, untroubled by an international response to his (probable) use of chemical weapons, would lead to further humanitarian catastrophe. Doing nothing allows a conflict to spread, as is already happening in Lebanon. But can we really join forces with Syrian rebel forces, mostly made up of the Muslim Brotherhood, and including elements of Al Qaeda?
I watched the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, and the professional commentariat was pretty well unanimous in insisting that the US needs to carry through with an attack, once one has been threatened. The pressure for war doesn’t come from any one particular source. It’s a Washington thing, a Beltway consensus, with opinion-makers on both sides of the ideological divide in agreement. The US cannot ‘appear weak.’ The President, having declared a ‘red line’ Syria could not be allowed to cross–chemical weapons against its own people–must not now back down from it.
So the President did two things that I applaud, frankly. First, he asked for Congressional approval for an attack. Article One Section Eight of the Constitution couldn’t be clearer–there’s no ambiguity in its text. Congress gets to declare war. I’m familiar with the Unitary Executive Theory which argues that the President, as Commander in Chief, can basically send troops anywhere, on whatever pretext. (Or basically exercise all executive functions unilaterally). I think it’s bonkers–neo-conservative nonsense, a fantasy. Give me separation of powers, thank you very much. The President should consult with Congress, seek Congressional approval.
Which may not necessarily be forthcoming. The House of Representatives has recently been an obstreperous lot, and may well decide not to support a President the majority caucus generally loathes. If the President were to propose a resolution stating that cornbread dressing is particularly yummy with Thanksgiving turkey, I suspect there are Tea Party conservatives would find a way to oppose it.
Okay, but then: this. Jon Stewart, citing “Newton’s Law of Relative Stupidity,” mocked Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparently off-the-cuff proposal that Assad could avoid a US attack if Russia were to agree to mediate. Hilarity ensued, as is often the case on the Daily Show. Then, two hours after The Daily Show was taped, the President spoke. And he said this:
The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons and even said they’d join the chemical weapons convention, which prohibits their use.
It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force . . . .
I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to met his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom. And we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.
We’ll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies, from Europe to the Americas, from Asia to the Middle East who agree on the need for action.
Okay, so Jon Stewart ridiculed this Russian initiative almost immediately. And some of the same conservatives arguing for war went nuts, with Ann Coulter saying Putin had made Obama ‘look like a monkey.’
I don’t know, though. Putin is an Assad ally. If we could involve Russia in working towards a negotiated settlement, wouldn’t that be better than fighting a war, however limited, with ill-defined aims, no clear exit strategy and no national interest at stake. And what if Putin’s involvement here, at this level, could lead to an overall UN diplomatic solution to the civil war?
It’s easy to say that the UN is useless, that the UN can’t actually accomplish anything. But right now, the United Nations is anything but ineffectual. They’re doing an incredible job, in fact, in responding to the emerging Syrian refugee crisis. Andrew Harper, the main UN representative of the UN Refugee Agency has been publicly calling for support, appearing on NPR and The Daily Show, and really any other media outlet that will give him a platform.
A diplomatic solution should be the priority of everyone, and realistically, any diplomatic solution must involve Russia. Whether Secretary Kerry initially meant his proposal seriously or not, it’s now on the table, and being taken seriously, as indeed it should be. Meanwhile, cut the President some slack. He’s negotiating a fantastically treacherous diplomatic terrain; let’s hope a solution can be found. Ultimately, it would be nice if Bashir al Assad could be persuaded to step down peaceably. At least, though, it would be nice if we could take away his sarin gas. That would be, at least, something.