President Obama’s speech last night concerning possible air strikes on the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad should have been given a week or more ago. Mr. Obama painted an emotional picture of Syrians dying in a nerve gas attack on August 21, but did not present any new proof of the chemical attacks nor any new reasons for a US response other than his own belief that it is necessary.
We do not know what is going on behind the scenes, but it is obvious that “punishment” for Syria is taking a very long time to be carried out. According to the President, he has already made the decision that action must be taken. So why did he delay so long before seeking Congressional approval?
May I offer the following speculative possibilities for continued delays?
* Mr. Obama knew the Congressional response would not be swift and hoped that would give anti-war protesters time to get organized. The President may want the cover of a Congressional denial so he does not have to act against Syria. (I find it hard to believe that the 14,000 Syrians killed in the nerve gas attack are any more important to the President than the 100,000+ Syrians killed by the Assad regime in the past two years.)
* Mr. Obama might want a strike or the fallout from a “no” vote in Congress to coincide with the fight over a new federal budget (due October 1), the fight over the Farm Bill which expires on October 1 and includes food stamp provisions, the start of healthcare insurance exchanges on October 1, and hitting the federal debt ceiling again in mid-October. The President may hope Syrian issues overshadow any negative news concerning his administration over financial issues and healthcare. He might also hope that Congress will be weary enough from the Syrian difficulties that they will not fight new spending, tax hikes and federal borrowing.
* All this extra time allows Assad to hide or secure his chemical weapons. (Who would benefit from this I do not know, but if the US had been serious about striking Assad, we likely would have done it quickly and without announcing it.)
President Obama asking for a delay in the Congressional vote is nothing to give him credit for. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had already postponed yesterday’s Senate vote because there were not enough “yes” votes to pass the “use-of-force” resolution.
Early last week Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Russia broker an agreement for Syria to turn over their chemical weapons, but also expressed doubt that Russia would do so. President Obama then talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-2 Summit in St. Petersburg a few days later. Putin put forward just such a proposal on Monday. Less than a week earlier he had said Secretary Kerry’s September 4 comments were lies and that he would consider selling missile defense systems to Syria. Now he’s helping the US? How convenient.
Russia scheduled a United Nations Security Council meeting for today, then cancelled it. Not a very good beginning to negotiations. Even if this idea is accepted, it would take months to get UN inspectors into Syria and actually secure whatever weapons Assad has not hidden.
If the US successfully removes chemical weapons from the Syrian conflict (through air strikes or the UN taking control of them), Assad still has other weaponry to continue killing Syrians who oppose his regime. His troops had killed more than 100,000 rebels and innocent citizens before the chemical attack in August.
President Obama has said from the beginning that he has Constitutional authority to act without Congressional approval in the interest of national security. Assad made veiled threats about retaliation by various groups in the region if the US strikes (CBS News 9/9/13). Iran has been surprisingly quiet throughout this crisis, but since they have made threats against the US and Israel in the past and are a staunch Syrian ally, we would certainly need to watch for action from them. Would our nation be more or less secure if we take unilateral action against Syria?
I am appalled by the deaths in Syria over the past two years. The US has always been the world’s best hope for salvation from tyrannical governments. But we have normally acted in concert with a coalition of other nations (e.g. with Britain, France, et al. against Hitler and Mussolini, with UN forces against North Korea, with NATO in Kosovo). President Obama authorized US air strikes and other actions in support of anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya. The unspoken goal was to get rid of leader Muammar Qaddafi. That did not turn out so well. One year ago today the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked and 4 Americans murdered. Although not in the news much, Libya is still unstable. This time President Obama has said any US air strikes on Syria would not be aimed at regime change. So what is the goal for Syria?
It really seems like Mr. Obama is reacting because he set a “red line” in August 2012. Although I am concerned about the possibility of more Syrian deaths, the President needs a more specific goal for US military action than “deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities”. (How exactly would deterring and degrading be measured?)
I think Congress should say “no” to any “use-of-force” until the President can state a distinct end result and a specific plan and timeline to get there. Congress should also be sure there is no funding for Mr. Obama to act on his own. We the people may not be privy to all the sensitive details, but with a well-defined goal we can have more faith in the correctness of the ultimate US decision.