President Obama is in a bind on Syria. On the one hand, his allies, the UN, the American public and likely the Congress have all deserted him on a plan to retaliate against Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. If he acts alone, he risks undermining international law, will face massive blowback from the electorate, and could look like even more of a cowboy than George W. Bush.
On the other hand, he's already drawn a red line that's been crossed and then doubled down on it by saying America must respond to Assad's recent brutality. If he fails to act, he squanders his own and America's credibility and sends a message to Assad to keep using weapons of mass destruction and to Iran, North Korea and others that America's threats are hollow.
So what can he do? Here's a possible three-step plan.
1. The President should ask Congress for authorization to strike Syria. As a legal and policy matter, he'd be putting a genie back in the bottle that desperately needs to go back there. As Rachel Maddow wrote in her excellent book Drift, for too long the checks that were designed to make it difficult for America to send its sons and daughters into war have eroded as presidents have assumed more and more of a war making power that the founders intended to be split between two branches. By seeking Congressional approval (which would only be one piece in what would be necessary to strike), Obama would reinforce the important constitutional principle that except in cases where national security demands the executive act with exigency, Congress must have a say.
As a political matter, Congress is unlikely to authorize strikes. And when they fail to, after the President makes a forceful case, the blame for America's failure to follow through on its strong words would belong to the Hill, not the White House. After a failed vote in Congress, the President could continue to make his case for military action to the American people, to the Congress, and to the international community and UN. He can even make clear to Assad that Congress may not have given the green light this time, but since the vote would likely be close, should Assad unleash these weapons again, those votes would start to flip. That's a reasonable way of salvaging a deterrent.
2. With military strikes blocked by Congress, the President should turn his attention to much more aggressive diplomacy, and his first target should be Iran. Two factors make Iran's place in this complicated mosaic a potentially shifting one. First, Iran is one of the few global victims of chemical weapons. Saddam used them against Iran in the 1980s. The notion now that Iran might be standing with a tyrant who gassed his own people is not sitting well with the Iranian public. And their press, which is gaining slightly more independence, is not likely to let the issue go if more evidence comes out to hang the Ghouta massacre on Assad.
Second, Iran's new President Rouhani campaigned on trying to re-engage Iran with the West and restore its international reputation. He needs to show the hardliners and his skeptics that this strategy can bear fruit. Obama could give him that validation by reaching out. And although Rouhani doesn't call all the shots in Iran by far (that role belongs more to the religious and military leaders), by validating Rouhani's strategy, Obama could strengthen Rouhani's hand, giving a moderating voice more influence.
This past weekend, Rouhani's measured statements on the chemical weapons attack should already be seen as a sliver of daylight between Iran and Syria. He condemned the attack and said nothing about allocating blame (it was up to his foreign minister to peddle garbage about the rebels being responsible). Obama wouldn't need to sever the alliance completely -- indeed, that would be very hard to do -- but even pushing Iran just inches further away from Assad could shift the momentum away from the Syrian regime. It could de-escalate Hezbollah's commitment of resources on the regime's behalf, weakening their military superiority, and might even signal to Assad's top lieutenants that the tide is turning against them and give them a reason to come to the negotiating table in a serious way while their hand remains relatively strong.
3. Finally, the President should continue to work with our allies to press the Syrian case at the UN. President Obama is absolutely right to believe in the doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the idea that the international community has an obligation to protect civilians from barbarism like Assad's. But R2P must operate within a framework. You can't punish one violation of international law by engaging in another. That framework is through UN authorization.
Unfortunately, right now Russia and China are proving themselves unworthy of holding seats on the Security Council by inexcusably blocking every reasonable effort to respond to Assad's threat to global peace and order. The U.S. and its allies should punish them for that behavior through diplomatic means. But if they remain intransigent even in the face of growing independent evidence that the Syrian regime was indeed responsible for the Ghouta attack, President Obama should ask the UN General Assembly to recommend international intervention in Syria under a doctrine known as Uniting for Peace. That doctrine was developed in 1950 for precisely this situation and states:
... if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately ...
Realists will object that the U.S. would never invoke Uniting for Peace because it risks weakening the role of the five permanent members of the Security Council, but that's precisely why it may be the only tool left to pressure Russia and China to moderate. And as for any damage to U.S. soft power, well, we're watching that power bleed away by the day. Were President Obama to do the right thing and lead the world to act through the General Assembly, that restoration of America's moral and diplomatic leadership would more than make up for rendering the Security Council any deader than it already is. It would also help to restore the UN's standing and trigger a discussion of reforming the UN structure that is long overdue.
All of this is of course very hard and would take time. And lives will be lost in the interim and that is a sickening thought (and we should be doing everything possible in the interim to provide the humanitarian aid to the Syrian people that is so badly needed). But lives are also lost when countries are quick to aggression. Some see the impediments posed by congressional votes and UN authorization as obstacles to what is needed when in fact they are features. It is supposed to be hard to go to war.
President Obama is right to believe the world must respond to Assad, both for his chemical weapons usage and for his even more deadly indiscriminate killing of civilians for the past two-plus years. But we are a nation -- and ideally a world -- of laws and not of men. As tragic as the Syrian war is, it isn't the first humanitarian disaster and sadly won't be the last. We must act with speed and determination to protect innocent lives, even if it requires violence to do so, but we must do so in the right way, or the next time, who knows who'll be making unilateral decisions to fire missiles. It might not be someone we like.