On Sunday, Mark Landler reported in The New York Times that when President Obama gives the commencement address at West Point on Wednesday, he will lay out a foreign policy agenda that "could deepen [U.S.] involvement in Syria."
In case you were unsure about what "deeper... involvement" would mean -- maybe you thought it could mean giving more money to help Syrian war refugees? -- The New York Times explained: [my emphasis]
"Obama... will emphasize Syria's growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda, officials said. That could open the door to greater American support for the rebels, including heavier weapons, though no decisions have been made."
Commentary elsewhere in the article -- and other press reports -- indicate that the "heavier weapons" would likely be "manpads," shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, which until now the Administration has refused to provide to Syrian insurgents, out of well-justified fear that they could easily fall into the hands of anti-Western terrorists who would love to use them against Western civilian aircraft.
Why would the Obama Administration want to get the U.S. more deeply involved militarily in Syria? Didn't U.S. public opinion -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- decisively reject this last fall? Didn't Congress refuse to authorize it?
The New York Times explained that President Obama is "seeking to answer criticism that he has forsaken America's leadership role."
The Times also says:
"Critics are also likely to argue that the president's words have not been backed up by actions. Administration officials, for example, have long promised to bolster support for the Syrian rebels. But they have so far refused to supply them with antiaircraft missiles because they fear that these weapons could fall into the hands of extremists."
Now, you might ask -- the Times certainly doesn't -- why do pro-war "critics" of President Obama get to set the agenda of U.S. foreign policy? People who want more frequent and more aggressive U.S. military interventions in other people's countries lost the 2006 Congressional election, the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the 2008 presidential election, and the 2012 presidential election. The 2011 censure of President Obama by the House for trampling Congressional war powers in the bombing of Libya and Congress' failure to authorize last fall's threatened bombing of Syria show these pro-war "critics" don't command a majority of House Republicans. The "critics" are led by a handful of almost-always pro-war Senators who are constant guests on the network Sunday talk shows -- some of them, like Senator McCain, the very people who lost those elections. Who cares what these pro-war critics think?
The New York Times cares, and President Obama cares, because in the world in which both President Obama and the New York Times ordinarily live -- the East Coast elite media bubble -- those pro-war "critics" are the whole universe outside of the Administration. In the thousand-word NYT article, every person cited is either 1) a critic of the Administration who thinks that the U.S. should be bombing more countries or 2) an Administration official. But the Times is not alone in this worldview. As the Times recounted: [my emphasis]
"It was on Mr. Obama's trip to Asia last month that his frustrations with his critics boiled over. 'Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget?' he said in Manila."
According The New York Times, everybody who's anybody except for President Obama wants the U.S. to bomb Syria already. But more remarkably, President Obama appears to have the same view: Everybody who's anybody except for him wants to bomb Syria already. You might think that if you were President Obama, if The New York Times were trying to portray you as isolated because you weren't bombing enough countries, you might push back by saying: The majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents in the country don't want the U.S. government to be running around the world, bombing other people's countries all the time, so the New York Times and its favored "critics" can go pound sand.
But President Obama doesn't seem to be doing that, so either he is afraid to challenge the East Coast elite media, or he has drunk their Kool-Aid.
As has been reported in the Western press, the "rebels" who The New York Times says may be getting "greater American support... including heavier weapons" are closely tied to the "terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda" who unnamed Administration officials say are increasingly finding haven in Syria. According to unnamed officials and The New York Times, the logical U.S. response to this situation is to send "heavier" weapons to the terrorists' comrades-in-arms.
As the Times noted, the U.S. government has (as far as we know) held back on sending manpads to Syrian insurgents not because we object on principle to adding to the bloodletting of Syria's sectarian civil war - principled opposition to the mindless escalation of pointless violence being generally derided as unserious opinion in Washington foreign policy debates, barely worth distinguishing from pacifism - but because supplying manpads to Al Qaeda's friends would raise the risk of terrorist attacks on civilian aviation throughout the region, including in Israel, according to the Israeli government.
You might think that if the Israeli government is opposed to the U.S. sending manpads to Syrian insurgents because it would increase the risk of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian aircraft, that would be a decisive blow against this idea. Why is this idea even on the table for discussion?
The "door" to deeper U.S. [military] involvement in Syria that The New York Times thinks might be opened is the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. According to the Administration's interpretation of the 2001 AUMF, passed in the days after the September 11 attacks, the president has authority to use military force against "associated forces" of Al Qaeda anywhere in the world, regardless of whether these "associated forces" represent any physical threat to the United States.
So, according to this view, while Congress and the American people actually rejected deeper U.S. military involvement in Syria's sectarian civil war last fall, if groups in Syria can be added to the (classified) list of "associated forces" then the president can use military force in Syria without explicit authorization from Congress.
Of course, the people who are telling us now that the president doesn't need congressional approval to escalate militarily in Syria are the same people who told us last fall that the president didn't need congressional approval to bomb Syria. What turned this around last fall wasn't that these people had a sudden attack of conscience and realized that the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution are good law. What turned this around was that some Members of Congress spoke up and people outside the Beltway piled on other Members of Congress to come out from under their desks.
Now, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress, including Democrats Peter Welch and John Conyers and Republicans Walter Jones and Mick Mulvaney, are speaking up against about the crazy idea of sending manpads to Syrian insurgents. All they need now is for people outside the Beltway to pile on other Members of Congress to come out from under their desks.
Follow Robert Naiman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/naiman