It appears as if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has his own US media strategy: He’s given a full-length interview to veteran broadcaster Charlie Rose that has already been taped in Damascus. Snippets were broadcast on CBS Monday morning, and the full thing will be shown on PBS in the evening.
Will sitting down and talking with a respected American journalist help Mr. Assad avoid a looming US attack in retaliation for his alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people?
That depends on how the US audience, and in particular members of Congress, respond to Assad’s words, of course. Some might see an English-speaking leader who sounds reasonable while making antiwar arguments. Others might bridle at what they see as Assad’s lies and threats.
On one hand, Assad makes a case against attacks that sounds as if it could have come from a US cable-news talking head. He cites polls showing widespread opposition against striking Syria among US voters and says Congress is elected to respect voter wishes.
“What do wars give America?... Nothing. No political gain, no economic gain, no good reputation.... So this war is against the interests of the United States. Why?” Assad said, according to transcripts of interview highlights posted on the Facebook page of Norah O’Donnell of "CBS This Morning."
Assad says that any US attack will benefit only Al Qaeda. He has long claimed that the rebels he is fighting are all extremists and Islamists. He compared Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertions of Syrian chemical weapons use to the presentation of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, prior to the Iraq war, which mistakenly charged that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
Also, Assad continued to deny that his regime had authorized the use of chemical weapons. He said his forces had not been in the area where the alleged use occurred. In another area, he said, his own solders were “attacked chemically.”
“How can you talk about what happened if you don’t have evidences?” Assad told Mr. Rose, speaking in English.
“We are not a social-media administration,” he added, in what appeared to be a dig at the Obama administration’s strategy of using modern means to communicate with voters. “We are an administration that deals with reality.”
Actually, the Assad regime is something of a social-media administration. Among other things, it maintains an Instagram account on which it posts pictures of a smiling Assad going about daily business and his wife, Asma, doing good deeds.
The Rose interview seems part of this media approach to portray Assad to the West as a warm, secular leader, as opposed to an autocrat whose forces have killed thousands of Syrian civilians as they wage a ferocious civil war.
Assad does not bluster, as so many autocrats do, notes Max Fisher, Washington Post foreign affairs blogger. He is casual, takes tough questions without flinching, and turns the argument back to pressure points of US politics.
“Assad seems to betray a nuanced understanding of American politics and of the US debate over strikes – and where it’s weakest,” Mr. Fisher writes.
But Assad’s mask slips a bit at one point, when he says that if the US carries out an attack on his regime, in retaliation “you should expect everything.”
This response, he added, might not necessarily come from his own government. “If you strike somewhere, you have to expect repercussions somewhere else in different forms,” Assad said.
Threatening the US, even implicitly, does not usually play well with US voters.
Meanwhile, President Obama faces an uphill battle to get congressional approval for possible Syrian strikes. If the vote came today, he would probably lose. The Washington Post’s latest whip counts show 116 representatives against military action and 116 leaning “no.” A total of 217 votes will pass or kill the authorization.
Thus in a narrow sense, Assad’s interview might be a mistake. In politics, when your opponent is in trouble, it is often best to keep your mouth shut.
Will House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio resign his leadership post in 2014?
That's what The Huffington Post is reporting this week. After speaking to four top former Boehner aides, two current aides, five former leadership aides close to Boehner's inner circle, and a GOP operative, The Huffington Post said Boehner will step down after the midterm election, frustrated by his hard-to-steer caucus.
Mr. Boehner himself has suggested the opposite, saying earlier this summer that he’ll be sticking around. But one former senior aide to Boehner told The Huffington Post: "I'd be surprised if he did" stay.
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Assuming the report rings true, what would Boehner's political epitaph be? Is he a casualty of his party’s divide between tea party conservatives and more moderate members? Or has he, in his inability to build agreement around a slew of issues from Syria to immigration reform, furthered the ongoing intra-GOP feuding?
“John Boehner may or may not retire at the end of this term,” writes Ezra Klein of The Washington Post. “But Boehner does not want to go down as the guy who managed the two least-productive, least-popular congresses of all time, and whose greatest accomplishments were convincing his members not to shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling. According to the Huffington Post, before he retires, he wants at least one legacy-building accomplishment. He’ll even stay in Congress to get it.”
Some suggest Boehner has more to gain personally, in terms of his legacy, if he has decided to vacate the post – even if he doesn’t say as much publicly. That frees him from being beholden to the more strident wing of the GOP.
New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait writes that “a small minority of the most extreme Republicans have managed to keep Boehner on a leash by threatening to depose him as Speaker if he displeases them.”
A decision to say farewell to his position would allow him to lift the debt ceiling and keep government afloat, Mr. Chait says. Or he could work toward a budget deal. The moves require aligning centrist Republicans with the bulk of Democrats, however.
“Boehner could use that majority and then ride off into the sunset to become a lobbyist, enjoy a huge raise, and play a lot more golf,” Chait writes.
Boehner survived an effort to oust him in January. Twelve Republican lawmakers defected from the speaker’s camp, and with the GOP’s narrow majority, that provided for “a very tense final few minutes of the vote,” according to The Washington Post. He surpassed the 214 votes required for victory by six members.
With Boehner’s announcement this week that he’ll vote to give President Obama authority to take military action in Syria, he’s angering conservative factions anew. And others have said the immigration reform debate placed his speakership in peril, with many Republicans worried that he would force them to vote on a reform bill they don't want as part of an effort to woo Hispanics to the GOP.
Most agree that he’s vulnerable to another challenge if the GOP keeps its majority in 2014.
So who might want his gig ruling over such an unwieldy crew?
House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia is certainly a – maybe the – leading contender. During that January vote, three conservatives backed him over Boehner. But most believe he would not challenge Boehner, should the speaker decide to stay on. Another possible contender is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, according to The Huffington Post.
In the meantime, the ‘Will he or won’t he?’ speculation will likely continue. And the conservative base is growing ever more dissatisfied with the current gavel holder. The 2012 cries in the blogosphere to fire him could be heard again this fall.
And even if he wants to hold on to the job, The Huffington Post suggests: “It’s not at all clear he could win.”
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Ms. Cheney, daughter of ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, announced in July that she’s mounting a primary challenge to incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Enzi. Senator Enzi is pretty conservative – Wyoming is a pretty conservative state – but Cheney is positioning herself as the more conservative, more energetic Republican alternative.
You can see this on her website homepage, which pushes her as a “strong voice for Wyoming” (so Enzi isn’t one?) and prominently features an endorsement from Rush Limbaugh.
“We need about 95 more of you,” El Rushbo says of Cheney.
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Cheney’s problem is that she’s hitting speed bumps of her own making. Or something like that.
Take the fishing license snafu. In August, the Wyoming Star-Tribune revealed that Cheney had improperly received a state resident fishing license. To be eligible for the cheaper resident license rate, an applicant must have lived in the Cowboy State for a year. At the time, Cheney had been a Wyoming resident for 72 days. Her application said she’d lived there for a decade.
Cheney said the clerk who took her application must have made a mistake.
Fast forward to this week. Cheney’s hometown paper, the Jackson Hole News&Guide, recently wrote that Cheney posted a $220 bond for the “high misdemeanor” of swearing a false oath to obtain that troublesome license.
Cheney was not pleased. Speaking Wednesday to a meeting of Jackson tea party backers, she blamed the News&Guide editor by name, said “newspapers are dying, and that’s not a bad thing,” and urged supporters to avoid news accounts and to spread the word about her candidacy by themselves.
She has followed this up with a Facebook post rallying supporters against the “establishment mainstream media.”
We get that she’s not happy with her coverage. And on Facebook she did commend some “hardworking” Wyoming reporters. But by going Vesuvius on the state outlets that have covered Licensegate, she is taking on other Wyoming journalists who will be covering her every move for months to come. Rachel Maddow they’re not.
Plus, she’s keeping the fishing license story alive. It might have been better for her to downplay it as a paperwork error of unknown origin and move on.
Then there’s the way she riled her own sister.
On Friday Cheney issued a statement saying she is “not pro-gay marriage.” She needed to announce this publicly, she said, because the Enzi campaign was conducting a “push poll” that was asking voters if they were aware Liz Cheney “aggressively promotes gay marriage.”
Cheney’s sister, Mary, is gay, and married her partner in 2012. Dick Cheney has said he supports same-sex marriage. Because Wyoming is a conservative state, Liz Cheney must have known she was going to have deal with this issue in some manner. But her abrupt statement did not sit well with Mary, who posted on Facebook that she loves Liz but that she’s “dead wrong” on gay marriage.
Perhaps worse for Cheney, Enzi denied the “push poll” charge, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is supporting Enzi, took a swing at her.
“With all due respect, it looks like Liz Cheney is fishing without a license again,” said NRSC press secretary Brook Hougesen.
Cheney has months to overcome these stumbles, of course. The 2014 primary campaign has barely started. She’ll have lots of money and name recognition in a state that still reveres her dad.
But early polls aren’t good. A July 23 survey from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling put her behind Enzi, 54 percent to 26 percent. Half of those polled said they did not believe Cheney to be a Wyomingite.
A July 18 poll from GOP-leaning Harper Polling found similar results, with Enzi in the lead by 55 percent to 21 percent.
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This fracas might fall into the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a possible GOP 2016 White House contender, has agreed to honor Hillary Rodham Clinton, a leading Democratic presidential hopeful, with an award from the National Constitution Center, for which Mr. Bush is chairman of the board of trustees.
“Former Secretary Clinton has dedicated her life to serving and engaging people across the world in democracy,” Bush said in a statement. “These efforts as a citizen, an activist, and a leader have earned Secretary Clinton this year’s Liberty Medal.”
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Cue the outrage!
The Independence Hall Tea Party Association, a group local to the Philadelphia area, where the National Constitution Center is also based, is none too pleased with Bush’s decision. Girding itself for next week’s ceremony, the organization released a statement Monday calling the episode “extremely distressing.” The event, it also noted, will fall almost a year after the attack at the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.
It was on Clinton’s watch as secretary of State that the attack occurred, killing the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. Some, conservatives in particular, still question her role in the tragedy and whether she and others in the administration could have done more to prevent it. They also allege a coverup.
The organization faults Bush, meanwhile, for lavishing “glowing praise” on Clinton.
The right-wing media seem to be piling on. Some are suggesting Bush can’t be that interested in the White House if he’s willing to toast a strong potential candidate on the Democratic side.
Rush Limbaugh expressed his exasperation and disbelief, and he suggested Bush might have erroneously surmised such a move would woo women and some Democrats to the GOP’s cause.
“Now, you see a story like this and you say, ‘What in the name of Sam Hill?’ ” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show. “It's bad enough the woman is getting this award. The Liberty Medal? She's getting this award because she's a good liberal, and then to find out that someone who is touted as a Republican presidential candidate is going to be presenting it to her because he runs this organization?”
The transcript of Limbaugh’s remarks indicates that he punctuated his comments with an audible sigh.
The National Constitution Center “seeks to illuminate constitutional ideals and inspire active citizenship,” according to its website, and it is the only nonprofit that exists to honor the US Constitution. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Constitution Heritage Act, which established the center.
It’s worth noting that former Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush serve as “chair emeriti” and that the group’s board is composed of individuals representing a range of political perspectives and backgrounds. They include former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, attorney David Boies, and Dikembe Mutombo, the retired NBA player.
It would appear that this is a down-the-middle venture with a goal that all Americans could embrace. Should Bush really be pilloried for furthering the bipartisan spirit of the center?
Despite the backlash in the blogosphere, perhaps Bush ends up looking like a rational actor with ideals and interests that rise above petty politics. We’ll have to wait a couple of years to see if this award ceremony comes back to bite him with mentions in television ads airing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Coinciding with the Sept. 10 event for Clinton, meanwhile, the Independence Hall Foundation – an affiliate of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association – will promote its alternative choice for the Liberty Medal and host a prayer vigil for those lost in Benghazi.
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On Monday the Brazilian government reacted angrily to new reports that the NSA intercepted the communications of President Dilma Rousseff and her top aides. Brazil’s Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador Thomas Shannon for a dressing-down, and told him to provide a “prompt written explanation” of the allegations, according to The Associated Press.
Brazil learned of the alleged eavesdropping in a Sunday night show on Globo TV, which cited 2012 documents from Mr. Snowden as its source. In response, officials called for some kind of international effort to produce regulations guarding against future electronic intrusions.
According to the AP, Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo said, “We’re going to talk with our partners, including developed and developing nations, to evaluate how they protect themselves and to see what joint measures could be taken in the face of this grave situation.”
The NSA also intercepted e-mails, text messages, and phone calls from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, said the Globo TV report. The Mexican government said it had complained through official channels.
If nothing else, the latest tranche of Snowden revelations shows that the NSA leaker’s information is not tapped out. Big stories based on his documents continue to appear, including last week’s Washington Post exposé on the details of the current US "black budget" for intelligence agencies.
On Sept. 2 the Post published another long piece based on Snowden-provided material, detailing how much Washington distrusts and spies upon Pakistan.
More NSA scoops are undoubtedly coming. Both The New York Times and the independent US investigative journalist group ProPublica have obtained Snowden-leaked documents, according to news reports.
Last week, the British government asked the Times to destroy documents related to the operations of the NSA and the British eavesdropping agency Government Communications Headquarters, according to Reuters. The US paper did not reply to the request.
The US intelligence community may still be unable to determine exactly how much classified information Snowden has, meaning US officials have little idea when Snowden’s leaks might end. NBC News reported last week that the British government has told a court hearing that David Miranda, the partner of journalist and Snowden collaborator Glenn Greenwald, had 58,000 classified documents in his possession when he was detained and searched at London's Heathrow Airport on Aug. 18.
Mr. Greenwald has previously said that Snowden downloaded about 20,000 documents.
The furor in Brazil over eavesdropping also shows that Snowden-provided NSA revelations will continue to affect US international relations for some time to come, even as the US is seeking international support for a possible intervention in Syria.
President Obama’s upcoming trip to Russia for an economy-focused Group of 20 summit has already been scrambled. Mr. Obama called off a scheduled one-on-one with Russia’s Vladimir Putin after Snowden obtained temporary asylum in Russia. European leaders upset about NSA activities will surely give Obama an earful.
Some US critics of Snowden’s activities say American spying on Brazil shouldn’t be surprising. Foreign espionage is the NSA’s job, after all.
Furthermore, leaking details of such spying isn’t whistle-blowing, because it doesn’t deal with allegations that the NSA has overreached in domestic surveillance, according to right-leaning talk host Ed Morrissey.
“What Snowden is doing with these revelations is explicitly intended to damage the US and its ability to conduct intelligence outside of its borders, not to push a much-needed debate on the PATRIOT Act and checks on domestic surveillance after 12 years,” writes Mr. Morrissey at "Hot Air."
Greenwald rejects this notion. He tweeted on Tuesday that people should read Snowden’s words in acceptance of a German whistle-blower award and judge whether he is a “traitor ... rather than a whistleblower.”
In accepting the award in absentia, Snowden said, “the greater reward and recognition belongs to the individuals and organizations in countless countries around the world who shattered boundaries of language and geography to stand together in defense of the public right to know and the value of our privacy.”
Syria is already tweaking President Obama, hailing his decision to seek Congress's approval before launching a military strike as a "historic American retreat." Meanwhile, the leader of Mr. Obama's seeming ally, the opposition Syrian National Coalition, is calling him a "weak president," according to CNN.
The announcement Saturday that Congress will have a say on whether to punish the Syrian regime for allegedly using chemical weapons to kill 1,400 of its citizens is, on one hand, not entirely surprising. As both a senator and as president, Obama has been an unrepentant multilateralist. He engineered America's withdrawal from Iraq as speedily as possible and agreed to intervention in Libya only because the operation had United Nations approval and French and British leadership.
With no UN approval for a strike on Syria and British Parliament voting against action last week, congressional approval provides at least the sheen of a broader process.
But has Obama damaged the power of the president by allowing Congress its say? Is his decision, in fact, a "historic American retreat" – at least within the context of domestic politics?
Certainly, he's doing something that no recent US president has done. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983 and bombed Libya in 1986 without congressional approval, and Bill Clinton committed US forces to NATO air campaigns in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 and launched a missile attack against terrorists in Afghanistan in 1998 without congressional backing. When Obama signed on to the 2011 Libya operation without involving Congress, he appeared to be endorsing an increasingly clear doctrine of presidential power: Congress was needed only if the military engagements would be long and involve significant ground troops – as in the two Iraq wars.
Obama himself has said that any US strikes against Syria would not be "open ended" and would not include "boots on the ground." So in turning to Congress, he has reversed a 30-year trend in Washington power politics, perhaps with lasting effect.
In defending the president's decision Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to maintain the power of the presidency. Speaking on various morning talk shows, Secretary Kerry said the president has the authority to act no matter what Congress does. But would Obama go through all this only to ignore what Congress decides? For all intents and purposes, he has ceded the final decision to Capitol Hill.
Kerry said he expects Congress to endorse Syria strikes, and Obama has begun to woo members of Congress, meeting Monday with the Senate's two biggest proponents of military action – Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – though his tougher sell will likely be in the House.
But pass or fail, a congressional resolution on Syria will stand as a precedent that future presidents must address. The line between when Congress must be consulted and when presidents can act unilaterally seems less clear now than it was a week ago.
Perhaps that is to be expected. Since it began, the Syrian civil war has presented outside nations with choices that all seem unappealing in the extreme.
As an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has blocked any attempt at action against him through the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, Syria's connections with Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Israel threaten to turn any interference into a regional conflict. Add to that the fact that some (many?) of the rebels might have ties to extremist groups, and Obama – like other world leaders – has chosen simply to keep his distance.
But the use of chemical weapons is clearly deeply troubling to him. "It's important for us to recognize that when over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal," Obama said Friday.
Indeed, despite his commitment to coalition-building, Obama appeared ready to strike Syria without UN or NATO involvement – right up until the vote in British Parliament. Now deprived of his "special" ally, Obama must seek another closer to home.
And that might be the enduring lesson of Obama's announcement Saturday. In 2011, he had the backing of the UN in Libya. In the 1990s, Mr. Clinton had the backing of NATO. Today, it seems, Congress is a multilateralist president's "coalition" of last resort.
Though the decision diminishes the current view of presidential authority, the alternative would be worse, it seems, to Obama.
Might Syria be the new Iraq?
The British Parliament on Thursday voted against helping the US strike Syria, in part, because many lawmakers remain bitter over Great Britain’s participation in the lengthy, troubled US-led war that ousted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In the US, critics say it’s ironic that President Obama is pushing military action against a tyrant over weapons of mass destruction, given that Senator Obama opposed President Bush’s push to do the same thing 10 years ago.
“Many of the same objections that Obama once voiced are being hurled back at him by opponents of an intervention in Syria,” writes Time’s Michael Crowley Friday on the Swampland blog.
There’s some doubt about the nature of US intelligence on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, for one thing, as there was about US charges in 2003 that Hussein was stockpiling his own weapons of mass destruction.
While video and forensic evidence provide little doubt that hundreds of Syrian civilians were killed by poison gas, there appears to be no smoking gun bit of intelligence tying top members of the Bashar al-Assad regime to the attack. It is possible that middle-level commanders ordered the chemical strike on their own initiative.
There’s also worry that US retaliation could produce unintended blowback consequences, as the US invasion of Iraq produced an unintended sectarian conflict that sucked America into a decade-long war.
Lobbing a few cruise missiles at the Syrian government might goad it to use chemical weapons again, writes Marine Lt. Col. Gordon Miller of the Center for a New American Security. It could lead Iran to provide Syria with more overt military support. It could even drag Israel into conflict, if Syria decides to retaliate against its regional neighbor and US ally.
“Although these worst case scenarios have a low probability of occurring, they must be included in the planning for the impending operations to help prevent the potential for a catastrophic situation in the Middle East, writes Miller.
Finally, there’s the personalization of the Obama administration’s approach. Syria's Assad is the leader responsible for the attack, and he needs to be punished, in this formulation. That sounds a bit like the way the Bush administration used to talk about a certain mustachioed, blustering Iraqi.
Wrap all this together, and some critics say the US has not made a good case for its impending Syria actions. Even some of the architects of the US involvement in Iraq take this position.
“One thing that’s very interesting, it seems to me, is that there really hasn’t been any indication from the administration as to what our national interest is with respect to this particular situation,” said ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld earlier this week.
For its part, the White House strenuously rejects the Syria-equals-Iraq analogy. The situation today is much different than it was in 2003, said White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday.
There’s a preponderance of evidence in the public domain, such as videos and photos on social media, that proves Syria used chemical weapons against civilians, said Mr. Earnest. Mr. Obama has been clear that any US strike on Syria will be limited in scope, and he’s also said that the point of any attack would not be to push out the Assad regime.
“What we saw in [2003 prior to action in Iraq] was an administration that was searching high and low to produce evidence to justify a military invasion, an open-ended military invasion of another country, with the final goal being regime change,” said Earnest.
Some conservatives agree that Syria is not Iraq, but for the opposite reason: The Bush administration did a better job justifying US action in the Middle East, they say.
The Bush White House produced a 16-point argument for US action in Iraq, of which Hussein’s alleged WMD was only one point, says right-leaning talk show host Ed Morrissey on "Hot Air." Mr. Bush went to Congress and won a vote authorizing force. The Bush administration went to the UN to make its case, not just with WMD intelligence, which later proved false, but with assertions that Hussein had continually violated a string of UN Security Council resolutions.
“Critics of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq may scoff, but George W. Bush scrupulously made the case for military intervention in Iraq,” writes Mr. Morrissey.
Congress wants in on the decisionmaking about Syria.
House Speaker John Boehner, in a letter submitted to the White House Wednesday afternoon, asked that President Obama provide his reasoning and goals for military action in Syria before engaging there. Speaker Boehner wants to be informed of the potential costs involved and the legal justification for moving ahead without a congressional resolution.
"[I]t is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action ... will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy," he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, some 116 House members – 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats – sent a separate plea to Mr. Obama seeking congressional authorization for any steps toward retaliation against a Syrian leadership that allegedly used chemical weapons on its own citizens.
The moves mark heightening tensions between the administration and Congress, a showdown of sorts that only reinforces the near-constant friction that exists between the White House and the GOP-led House. Now, even issues of international importance are not getting outside the usually fractious conversations about health-care reform, immigration, and guns that have dominated much of Obama’s time in office.
On the one hand, given how sour the relationships, it’s hard to imagine that Boehner and his leadership team would get on board with anything Obama aims to accomplish – with or without evidence – in an expeditious fashion. But then again, for the White House to take military action in an unstable country in a fraught region without congressional support leaves Obama going it all alone – and the US government was not devised so that the president should be a solo actor. Checks and balances between the branches are designed to help produce good decisionmaking.
Politically as well, the president invites enormous criticism if lives are lost, costs skyrocket, or the policy embarked upon is an overall dud. And legally, well, there’s a case to be made that Boehner’s view represents a historic norm: Typically, the president consults Congress on matters of war.
No one can say yet what being pulled into a conflict-ridden Syria might involve. Or how short- or long-term the commitment might be, regardless of intentions at the outset. The administration aims, at this point, not to become entrenched in a warlike situation there or war itself. Obama has spent his time in office pulling the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan; more fighting was not on his agenda.
With Iranian and Russian leaders cautioning against US intervention, however, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suggesting his nation will retaliate, any American military strike, no matter how limited in scope, could reverberate well beyond that country’s borders.
Congress is in recess until Sept. 9. But urgency could suggest the need for a special session. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament to talk through his country’s options in Syria. He and Obama have been in close touch in recent days. France is also weighing options.
Senior administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have briefed members of Congress and will hold another session Thursday.
“The President continues to review options with his national-security team, and senior Administration officials from the White House, State Department, Defense Department and Intelligence Community are continuing to reach out to bipartisan House and Senate leadership, leadership of the relevant committees, and other members of Congress,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said after Boehner’s letter was circulated. “The views of the Congress are important to this process, so we will be continuing to engage with them as the President reaches a decision on the appropriate U.S. response.”
Even though the White House has pledged to provide congressional leaders with a classified report – as well as submitting a nonclassified version to the public – lawmakers want more information and to provide more input. And many are advising that they deserve to be part of the process.
"Absent an imminent threat to United States national security, the U.S. should not be engaged in military action without Congressional approval," Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia said in a statement.
Rep. Ted Poe (R) of Texas believes that a unilateral presidential decision would violate the War Powers Resolution, which passed over President Nixon’s veto in 1973. Syria’s instability produces no imminent threat to America, he adds.
“According to the Constitution, it is Congress, and Congress alone, that has the power to declare war,” Representative Poe writes on Fox News’s website. “James Madison said, ‘The Constitution supposes what history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it.’ Madison was right on the money.”
Historically, though, disagreements have arisen about the intent of this resolution, and several presidents have acted to circumvent its requirements. For example, in the 1990s President Clinton used armed forces for airstrikes in Bosnia and Kosovo, dodging the requirements of the resolution. He reported to Congress but did not seek its full endorsement. Some members of Congress challenged Mr. Clinton unsuccessfully in court. Clinton at the time suggested the War Powers Resolution was “constitutionally defective.”
In 2011, the Obama administration argued that limited intervention in the Libyan civil conflict also did not fall under the scope of the War Powers Resolution. In a report provided to lawmakers at the time, the White House described the NATO-led mission as not involving sustained fighting, exchanges with hostile forces, or ground troops. At the time, Boehner complained that the effort went beyond the 60-day window for unauthorized engagement that is specified in the resolution. Other members filed a lawsuit requiring the US to pull out because Congress failed to authorize engagement; it was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge.
The White House stood its ground, meanwhile, citing a supporting role.
Concerning Syria, Obama has put himself in a tough spot, Nicholas Kristof suggests in Thursday’s New York Times. The president declined to arm rebels earlier because he “feared being dragged into the conflict.” But with 100,000 killed, the latest news of a chemical attack, and the consequences of a destabilized Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, Obama has set himself up to have to do something.
“Since President Obama established a 'red line' about chemical weapons use, his credibility has been at stake: he can’t just whimper and back down,” Mr. Kristof writes.
And perhaps this means that in this urgent situation, Obama can’t get mired in a difficult conversation with a difficult Congress. Or conversely, does it suggest all the more that he work with the Congress he has?
It looks as if the US is about to attack Syria because the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people. US officials have made it clear that a main goal of such a strike would be to deter future use of this particular weapon of mass destruction, by Syria or anyone else.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday said that since the end of World War I the Chemical Weapons Convention and other multilateral efforts have established an international norm against use of poison gas.
“The use of chemical weapons on the scale that we saw on Aug. 21 cannot be ignored. It must be responded to, because to allow it to happen without a response would be to invite further use of chemical weapons and to have that international standard dissolved,” said Mr. Carney.
But here is one complication: From a military standpoint, chemical weapons themselves are a difficult target. Deterrence in this case might involve US strikes against the infrastructure that supports their use, including missiles and other delivery systems, and command-and-control sites, as opposed to chemical stocks.
For one thing, chemical weapons would not just harmlessly vaporize in an attack. If hit by US munitions, chemical dumps could release some poisons into the air or in liquid form on the ground. Predicting the environmental effect in the surrounding area would be extremely difficult.
US cruise missiles in particular would not be able to destroy chemical stocks. Their warheads are not big enough to incinerate chemical weapons.
“Air operations alone will likely be able to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile only to a certain extent, but not completely,” writes naval analyst Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War in a study of possible US actions in Syria.
Second, air strikes against chemical depots could allow extremist rebel factions access to any remaining stocks. With gates blown open and guards scattered or killed, Islamist groups might seize chemical weapons – a nightmare proliferation scenario.
Third, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is probably too big for the US to destroy without the kind of large scale, boots-on-the ground military operation that the Obama administration has already ruled out.
Syria has been acquiring and producing nerve gas and blistering agents for decades. At this point, it has tons of chemical weapons, according to an Arms Control Association assessment, deliverable by bombs, missiles, and artillery.
By now, this stockpile has probably been dispersed to many sites, away from Syria’s five known chemical weapons installations.
Fully controlling Syria’s chemical weapons – by destroying large portions of its accumulated stocks, interdicting the movement of remaining chemicals, and seizing delivery systems and other program components – is within the power of the US military, according to a letter Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey sent Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in July.
But the effort would be extensive, according to the top US military officer.
“At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers,” wrote General Dempsey. “Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over $1 billion per month.”
Some experts say Dempsey’s comments constitute a worst-case scenario. Military and strategic expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the July letter was “overkill.”
Could a focused effort to deal with the most dangerous chemical stockpiles, as well as with the forces that are armed and prepared to use chemical weapons, be effective in deterring their further use?
“The answer seems to be yes,” writes Dr. Cordesman in an analysis of US options in Syria.
And that’s the sort of US attack scenario that seems most likely at the moment: a limited strike using stand-off weapons such as cruise missiles to minimize danger to US personnel.
“These would target the most significant Syrian military facilities and assets and would essentially be punishment for using chemical weapons rather than an attempt to decisively swing the balance of power in favor of the opposition,” says Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.
As President Obama’s administration makes a case for military action in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, the discussion is prompting a key legal question: Does Mr. Obama have the authority to act without congressional approval or a UN Security Council resolution?
In England, Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled Parliament and asked for a government motion and vote on the appropriate British response.
But opinions are mixed about Obama’s need for similar backing. And the question is not only a legal one but also political. Legally, does Obama need congressional support? And politically, should he desire it?
Even though President George W. Bush’s administration ultimately had to defend the supporting evidence it produced – or misrepresented, depending on your view – to lobby for military action in Iraq, Congress did pass a war resolution in 2002 authorizing force.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush also asked for and received congressional backing for the Gulf War waged on his watch. The UN Security Council passed a resolution as well, requiring Iraq to destroy its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons arsenal and pay war reparations to Kuwait.
But the UN Security Council does not appear to be a viable avenue for the Obama administration as it considers how to move on Syria. The Russians, fellow members, have pledged to veto anything considered by the UN. Their comparisons between Obama and his predecessor, often deemed the cowboy diplomat by his opponents, are rampant.
“Obama is restlessly heading towards war in Syria like Bush was heading towards war in Iraq,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Russian lower house’s international committee, said on Twitter. “Like in Iraq, this war would be illegitimate and Obama will become Bush’s clone.”
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, added his voice to the mix: "The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law.”
Of course, the Constitution provides Congress with the power to declare war. But the Obama administration would likely argue it’s not proposing war, just, potentially, a missile strike that would represent a slap to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and caution that there’s more where that came from. An effort to dislodge him, but not a full commitment of troops, money, and time.
But some lawyers see danger signs in Obama’s push for strikes against Syria. Obama is advocating an “imperial presidential model,” says Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University.
“We speak of United Nations support but we continue to act unilaterally in making war on those countries who do not yield to our demands,” Professor Turley says. “The talk of unilateral military action reaffirms the view that the United States only acts within international rules when it suits our objectives.”
Congress is out of session this month, and given the seemingly irreparable fissure between the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and the White House, it’s unclear, if probably also unlikely, that the executive branch and lawmakers could reach consensus on how to proceed in Syria. At least not in a timely fashion.
Congressional approval would give Obama political cover, but it doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
“Legally the president is on very firm ground if he seeks congressional authorization,” says Wells Bennett, a national security law fellow at Brookings. “The question then becomes is that doable as a political matter.”
With the situation in Syria fluid, what then might Obama use as backing?
Mr. Bennett says the president’s powers to act independently loosely encompass several areas: national security, national interest in providing for regional stability, and protection of US property or persons. A claim of self-defense, another possible support for executive action, isn’t evident in this situation.
More likely, where Syria is concerned, the administration is clearly considering the humanitarian principles involved and the tenuous balance that seems to be slipping away in this fraught region. With this rationale, the administration might reasonably make the claim that action is “morally and strategically justified,” Bennett says.
He also says the most likely, though by no means perfect, historic parallel is the 1999 NATO air campaign in Kosovo. Then, as now, civilians were involved in atrocities perpetrated by the government in power. Russia had ties, too, to Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, so President Clinton was unable to secure a UN resolution. Instead, he used NATO backing as endorsement for US air strikes.
Kosovo was a serious humanitarian crisis requiring expedited action; the Obama administration is making a similar claim for Syria.
“The trouble is that the legality of the Kosovo action was and remains acutely controversial, too – domestically, because the president acted alone, without a self-evident basis for doing so and without announcing his legal rationale publicly,” Bennett says, “and internationally, because (again) the Security Council did not sign off and no self-defense claim was implicated there, either. So Clinton’s actions were certainly controversial legally, then as now.”
Much as Obama’s are bound to be when, and if, he moves forward. The president likes to echo his predecessor, President Harry Truman, in stipulating that the buck stops with him. In the case of the Syria firestorm and US reaction to it, that couldn’t be more true.