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With No Perfect Option on Syria, President Obama's Call for Congressional Action Is a Win-Win

09/05/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated Nov 05, 2013

The two-part strategy on Syria that President Obama developed and unveiled on Aug. 31 is as deft as it was unexpected, and achieves multiple objectives. Confronted with a very difficult situation and the absence of an ideal solution that would satisfy all aims and all constituencies, his choice to seek congressional approval adroitly accommodates domestic and global political dynamics, promotes the U.S.'s short-term and long-term national security goals, and balances our nation's democratic and human rights principles. Both supporters and opponents of military action will be able to elevate the debate with fact-based rationales that transcend the narratives which are being propagated by cable news and other media echo chambers.

Although President Obama's inclusion of congressional approval into his plan occurred shortly before the plan's unveiling, this shift should be applauded for its adherence to his earlier-stated principles, its adherence to Constitutional principles, and the strength of judgment and character that it took to flexibly adapt to the situation. Too often in government as in human nature, the difficulty in changing a policy or strategy is allowed to outweigh the benefits of improving upon it. Just as we applaud a referee who reverses his or her call to reach the right outcome, we should applaud a President who declines to "stay the course" in order to achieve a better outcome and broader objectives. Critics who assert that the president's strategy is confused or muddled seem eager to doom themselves to less effective, less responsive, less intelligent governance.

The Benefits of President Obama's Two-Part Strategy

President Obama's two-part strategy involving Congress was the best available option, as evidenced by the many reasons for it, the many objectives that it can achieve, and the many pitfalls that it avoids.

1. Congress is the necessary forum for a debate on the appropriate use of force in order to consider the merits of military action under these circumstances. Many will argue that the U.S. has both humanitarian and national security interests in preventing chemical warfare, and that only the US is able to prevent such occurrences. Many others will argue that the enforcement of international norms and law is the domain of the United Nations, not the United States, and that the amorphous assertion of credibility in support of a stated "red line" is not sufficient to transfer the responsibility to the U.S. President Obama recognized that a decision of this magnitude, with far-reaching Constitutional and national security implications, necessitates bipartisan Congressional approval, rather than use of the War Powers Act shortcut.

2. If the President were to initiate military action without congressional approval, the mission would be hampered by pressure to take only very limited actions that are constrained to a very narrow scope. Many observers would incessantly criticize and second-guess every tactical action, and public opinion polls would bias decision-making on a daily basis. Instead, if his plan receives congressional approval, the president will have more latitude to engage assertively, execute the mission successfully, and achieve any and all objectives that Congress delineates.

3. If it appears likely that Congress will support the president's proposal, then the Syrian leadership will realize that the U.S. is ready, willing, and able to conduct military action with stronger force and greater commitment to achieving its objectives. Congressional approval would give the president a degree of authority to act that, in itself, could deter Bashar al-Assad from engaging in further atrocities. The prospect of severe U.S. military action should incentivize the Syrian government to negotiate, allow monitoring, moderate their actions against the rebels, and/or take other measures to forestall the severe consequences that it would otherwise face.

4. Even if Congress does not support the president's proposal, the Syrian government should still know that it must not engage in further chemical warfare or other atrocities, because, if it does so, then the facts on which the president's proposal is based would be superseded. Whereas President Obama's dual strategy contemplates punitive action for atrocities already committed, if the Syrian government engages in further action of that type, then immediate military action of a more severe nature would be justifiable, without congressional approval, and could be conducted under the War Powers Act.

5. The time devoted to congressional debate could be used to achieve a non-military resolution, aided by some in Congress calling for a broader scope of action, which would be like a "Sword of Damocles." Although the president is willing to use force, he would likely opt for non-military means if that would achieve his objectives. President Obama is very aware that potential responses to U.S. action could spin out of control, e.g., the Syrian government taking aggressive action against the rebels, Hezbollah taking aggressive action against Israel, Iran intervening to support Bashar al-Assad, and any of the three mounting hostilities against US interests, which would lead to a more severe response by the U.S. If the threat of a debilitating strike motivates Syria to halt its hostilities and negotiate in good faith, the U.S. would explore that opportunity.

6. The time accorded to congressional deliberations could also be used to build an international coalition that supports military action and contributes resources to it. By adhering to a democratic process involving Congress, potential coalition partners will be encouraged to join the effort, especially as the moral rationale for doing so, and the scope of atrocities by Bashar al-Assad's government, are illuminated during the debate.

7. Although Syria will use the Congressional debate time to continue relocating military and other assets to hide them from U.S. targeting, those efforts are not consequential. Most likely, U.S. forces are already monitoring such movements by satellite surveillance, local intelligence reports, and other mechanisms, the combination of which will enable mission success. Also, many of the presumed targets, such as facilities and infrastructure, cannot be moved.

8. If Congress were to expand the scope of action to include regime change, it is likely that the President would support it. Since President Obama previously supported regime change (by Syrians, rather than U.S. military action), it remains an implicit desire, even if not an explicit objective. When he stated that regime change is not his goal, he may have self-imposed this limitation to avoid a desperate response from Bashar al-Assad, insulate the U.S. from criticism for engaging in Syria's domestic affairs, and build a coalition for the main goal of stopping chemical warfare. Also, any further Syrian threat of, or engagement in, mass atrocities would justify and necessitate regime change as a U.S. military objective.

9. As the lesser of evils, the U.S. could reconsider arming the rebels, and the time devoted to congressional debate could provide that opportunity. This option should be contrasted with U.S. military action which, even if limited, could produce far worse consequences, with a much more immediate and tangible decay of U.S. national security, and very real threats to U.S. allies in the region. Although arming the rebels is the best way to hasten regime change, there is concern that some of the arms might reach Syrians who are linked to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. America's visceral repugnance to anything that could advantage those groups has stalled that option. Yet, it has been reported that the U.S. knows which groups of rebels are moderate and how to get arms to them, thus minimizing the risk. It is also possible that U.S. support for self-determination by the rebels might somewhat degrade Al-Qaeda's antipathy toward the US.

10. By calling for Congress to approve military force, President Obama made a military response more palatable to other countries, and made it easier to build a coalition. Congressional action provides the stage for a powerful example of the democratic process at work, with transparent, open, inclusive dialogue and decision-making. This will be well regarded by the international community, showcasing U.S. principles in action, reinforcing the U.S.'s moral high ground, and stimulating the participation of allies who will be more willing to be associated with constructive action that is approved by a democratic process.

11. The call for congressional approval will also have a positive impact on U.S. domestic politics, as both Republican and Democratic legislators will feel enfranchised rather than marginalized. Following debate that is sure to be very lively, thoughtful, candid, and welcoming of diverse views, the inclusive nature of the process is likely to prompt more legislators to support action, whereas an exclusively presidential action would have fostered more opposition. This process, and the time spent on the issue, is also likely to garner other benefits, as it could provide a foundation for bipartisan collaboration on a broader range of issues, and will reduce the time spent developing entrenched positions for the upcoming debt-ceiling debate.

12. By including Congress in the process and establishing a shared responsibility for the policy, the president has inoculated himself from the potential backdraft of a unilateral decision to use military force. The possibility of an executive action had been based, at least in part, on his earlier comment about the use of chemical warfare constituting a red line. Because of that, the President's choice to seek Congressional approval is specifically tailored to this circumstance, and does not create a general precedent for future military action. By seeking approval from Congress, the President ensures that he will either have broad-based support for action, or a firm basis for not engaging in military action.

The Bottom Line

If Congress approves the proposal, then President Obama's ability to conduct effective military action will be strengthened. Even if Congress rejects the president's proposal, he still benefits. If he is precluded by Congress from taking military action, then his willingness to take strong action in defense of human rights will still be recognized, his willingness to adhere to democratic procedures will be applauded, and his willingness to abide by Congress' verdict will be defended. Congress' refusal would absolve him of his obligation to use force for the sake of maintaining credibility and demonstrating U.S. resolve to other rogue nations.

Even with the uncertainties of the congressional process, the Syrian peoples' interests are still supported, albeit not as clearly as if military action commenced immediately. If further Syrian government atrocities appear to be imminent, or if they actually occur, then the Congressional outcome that was based on the Aug. 31 dynamics would be superseded, and President Obama would be justified in taking appropriate action, which could include an expansion of the scope of operations toward regime change. Bashar al-Assad's awareness of this should, in itself, deter such actions. In the meantime, President Obama retains the latitude to provide armaments to some of the rebels, and US intelligence efforts probably can minimize the flow of arms to undesirable parties.

As the Obama Administration plans for all of these scenarios, it appears that the president has crafted a win-win-win dynamic by calling for congressional action.