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Sep 03 2013

Obama to Seek Congressional Approval. Kind Of.

President Obama surprised people late last week by almost kinda pretending to make his behavior consistent with his rhetoric by asking for congressional approval before he bombs Syria. The man who once said the president could not take military action without congressional approval except in an immediate and necessary response to an imminent threat — which Syria clearly does not pose — and then ignored that principle in Libya, wants Congress to give him the go-ahead. But not getting it won’t stop him from doing what he wants to do:

Delaying what had loomed as an imminent strike, President Barack Obama abruptly announced Saturday he will seek congressional approval before launching any military action meant to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed hundreds.

With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes that as commander in chief, he has “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.”

At the same time, he said, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective.” His remarks were televised live in the United States as well as on Syrian state television with translation.

And then administration officials quickly made sure the press knew that he might well bomb Syria even if Congress says no. Which means this is a dog-and-pony show strictly for public consumption. Can we have the Obama who ran for president back? I liked him a lot better.

But as I’ve said before, what I’d like to hear is a coherent argument for A) what our objective would be and B) how a bombing campaign would achieve it. I can envision one possibility. If we could confirm that it was the Assad government that used the chemical weapons and we had the intelligence that would allow us to target the installations where those weapons are produced and/or stored, or the military units in charge of carrying out such an attack, then a bombing campaign that degraded their ability to carry out further chemical attacks might be both justified and achievable. But I have yet to hear anything remotely like that.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Raging Bee

    The man who once said the president could not take military action without congressional approval except in an immediate and necessary response to an imminent threat — which Syria clearly does not pose…

    Actually, that’s not necessarily true. Obama could decide that a certain action by the Syrian government demands swift and sure response, in order to have the full desired political impact, without waiting for Congressional approval. He’s well past that point WRT recent chemical-weapons attacks, of course, but he could invoke that rationale if Assad’s forces launch another such attack.

  2. 2
    eric

    It’s very simple: he didn’t seek it for Libya because he didn’t have the congressional votes locked up. He sought it for Syria because he thought he did. But now some Dems have backed out, thus the “I have the right to do it anyway” speech.

  3. 3
    sigurd jorsalfar

    The launching of cruise missiles by the United States is not a recognized remedy under international law for the use of chemical weapons.

  4. 4
    Synfandel

    If we could confirm that it was the Assad government that used the chemical weapons and we had the intelligence that would allow us to target the installations where those weapons are produced and/or stored, or the military units in charge of carrying out such an attack, then a bombing campaign that degraded their ability to carry out further chemical attacks might be both justified and achievable.

    And it might unleash large amounts of sarin gas on the people of Syria and the region.

  5. 5
    Gregory in Seattle

    If the US gets involved, it will be with the anti-government rebels. There are three main rebel groups. Two of them are Islamic militias who have the stated desire of overthrowing the secular government and replacing it with a theocracy. One of those two groups is openly sponsored by al-Qaida.

    If we support the secular group, it will only become yet another bullet-point in Islamicist recruiting literature. “See how the Great Satan supplies the enemies of Allah and provides soldiers and arms to murder us all!” And even if US involvement supports only the secular group, you can bet that US conservatives will refuse to make that distinction. “We were right! Obama is funneling money to Islamic extremists! Syria is a dry run for overthrowing the Constitution and putting America under Sharia law!”

    If we go in alone, as is looking more and more likely, it will be a disaster, domestically and internationally.

  6. 6
    Moggie

    Gregory in Seattle:

    If the US gets involved, it will be with the anti-government rebels.

    Already are, according to AP via Al Jazeera:

    Hagel told the committee that President Obama approved plans in June to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels, Hagel and senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the committee, both referred to the covert aid during a hearing on Obama’s request that Congress approve military action against Syria.

    Corker said he has been dismayed at the lack of support that has flowed to the rebels despite the promises of lethal aid.

    Hagel acknowledged that Obama decided in June to send lethal aid to the rebels. He said the Pentagon has not been directly involved because it is “a covert action”.

    Officials have spoken quietly about the expected CIA aid but say none has been delivered.

    So the pols are disappointed that the CIA assistance hasn’t been lethal enough.

  7. 7
    mudpuddles

    what I’d like to hear is a coherent argument for A) what our objective would be and B) how a bombing campaign would achieve it.

    Indeed, but there is a very important “C”: what plan is there for an exit strategy or post-intervention phase, allowing for the significant risk (highlighted by US military top-brass, the UN, and the Arab League) that US military intervention will likely make the problem for the Syrian people significantly worse? e.g. how to make sure that any intervention by the US does not intensify the Sunni / Shiite conflict, or give an upper hand to extremists? Also, and more fundamentally, no one seems to be wondering aloud about the ethics of intervening “to protect civilians from being killed by chemical weapons” when that intervention is a course of action that will almost certainly kill hundreds of civilians with conventional weapons.

    I can envision one possibility. If we could confirm that it was the Assad government that used the chemical weapons and we had the intelligence that would allow us to target the installations where those weapons are produced and/or stored, or the military units in charge of carrying out such an attack, then a bombing campaign that degraded their ability to carry out further chemical attacks might be both justified and achievable.

    Unfortunately, bombing chemical weapons depots would just release any chemical agents stored there into the environment, so that’s out. The only other option is to target the significant amounts of military units, air bases, and artillery & guidance infrastructure which might be used to further deploy chemical weapons. Which begins to look less like a specific response to chemical attacks and more like straight-up direct engagement in the conflict more generally.

    Considering the comparatively small number of Syrian civilians who have been killed by chemical weapons so far at around 400 (i.e. small relative to the total number killed in the conflict), and the likelihood that several hundred more would be killed or displaced by US involvement, I reckon the argument that there is any moral obligation to attack Syria looks crazy at this point in time.

  8. 8
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Moggie @ 6: So the pols are disappointed that the CIA assistance hasn’t been lethal enough.

    Maybe the US should loan them some poison gas. I hear that’s lethal-er.

  9. 9
    gridlore

    May I remind you that when NATO decided to intervene in Libya it was after Qadafi had sent an army towards the rebelling cities with explicit orders to commit a massacre? Less than 24 hours before men women and children were slaughtered by the thousands.

    The Constitution gives control of the Military to the President for just this reason. There wasn’t time for an extended debate and deal-making. Obama took it.

    So, what did we do? Spent one week involved in actual combat missions, then pulled back and provided refueling and search and rescue. No American casualties, no damage to American equipment, and the mission was a success.

  10. 10
    mikeymeitbual

    I’m with gridlore – according to the reports I read, Gadaffi had death squads going door-to-door executing people for no apparent (to me) reason. I didn’t think that was something that we stood for and in fact, something that we actively fight against.

    Imperialism is one thing – removing a despot from power to help free the people under their tyranny is a moral action. In fact, when presented with 2 options that were not satisfactory, the President instructed his cabinet members to come back with more ideas. It wasn’t something he did on a whim.

    I’m not the President’s biggest supporter – I admit I voted for him twice and did so because I couldn’t stomach the thought of a Vice President Palin/Ryan or President Romney. However, I think he made the correct decision as Commander-in-Chief based on the information available. I imagine being President is not dissimilar to playing poker – you have incomplete information and have to make the best possible decision based on that information. Gaddafi was a notorious thug and needed to be removed to allow the people to take control.

    Maybe I’m totally off my rocker on this, but of all the actions he has taken in office, I think President Obama did the right thing there.

  11. 11
    laurentweppe

    The man who once said the president could not take military action without congressional approval [...] and then ignored that principle in Libya,

    Oh Come ON: the US Congressmembers approved the Lybia intervention from day one, they were just too gutless to say so in public

    If we could confirm that it was the Assad government that used the chemical weapons and we had the intelligence that would allow us to target the installations where those weapons are produced and/or stored

    France provided said intelligence, confirming what Doctors Without Borders already said, and several european capitals both admited that the Assad regime approached them via ghost companies to buy the ingredients necessary to make chemical weapons. You really have a problem when it come to listening to Europe: we tell you that they are no WMD in Iraq, you don’t listen; we tell you that the Assad regime really did use chemical weapons and that, by the way, we still have the receipts… and you don’t listen either.

  12. 12
    eric

    @7:

    Unfortunately, bombing chemical weapons depots would just release any chemical agents stored there into the environment, so that’s out.

    You bomb the factories, which are going to contain mostly precursers and the industrial set-up needed to mass produce the stuff. For the depots themselves, you use thermobaric weapons; their effects don’t follow an r^2 decline and they nearly instantaneously reach temperatures of 3000 C – plenty hot enuogh to cook down any organic compound before it can spread. Yes, there will be some release because you can’t count on cooking everything in the first blast (unless you’re wlling to cluster bomb the entire area, I suppose). But consider the trade-off. With no attack, those weapons create a large enivornmentally dangerous release in a civilian area, impacting the health and livelihood of many civilians. With an attack, you create a smaler environmental release (because there’s less agent left intact) against wartime military personnel on a military base.

    Now, I personally think that’s a justifiable trade. I can see how someone could argue otherwise (maybe the Syrians won’t use the weapons. Maybe there is a diplomatic solution), but the point I’m trying to make is, you can’t only look at the risks of health and environmental damage of the attack when making a decision. That ignores the other side of the equation. You have to also look at the (for lack of a better term) opportunity cost – the environmental and human health risk that you’ll accrue if you don’t attack. Because whether you attack or not, there is going to be some risk of of the release out into the environment and affecting people.

  13. 13
    Ichthyic

    But as I’ve said before, what I’d like to hear is a coherent argument

    yes, that would be good. Evidence too.

    Five bucks says we will NEVER see the evidence Obama is purportedly basing his decision to strike Syria on.

    all a matter of National Security, you understand…

    for the life of me, I can no longer figure out what the long-term strategy is for the US in the Middle East any more.

    Just destabilize everyone like they did in South America? Is that what this is, really? Just a repeat of the CIA strategy from the 70s and 80s?

    ..because that worked out so well…

  14. 14
    Ichthyic

    several european capitals both admited that the Assad regime approached them via ghost companies to buy the ingredients necessary to make chemical weapons.

    they approached suppliers that had already been selling them precursors for years, and had taught them how to put them together, how to construct the factories, etc.

    this is not news.

    that isn’t direct evidence of usage in a specific instance.

    That said, one has to wonder…. If Obama IS utilizing french intelligence on this issue, why not just say so? Why go to such lengths to obfuscate the nature and scope of the evidence he is using to base his decisions on?

    no, it’s much more complicated than you want to make it out to be.

    I suspect there are a lot of powerful companies (both East and West) that would prefer the entire gory trail not become general public knowledge.

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