In announcing the U.S. “should” take military action “limited in scope” against Syria in response to a chemical-weapons attack Aug. 21 on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, President Barack Obama has found a way out of undertaking any action by saying he will go to Congress to decide.
In doing so, however, some analysts believe the president would be abrogating his role as commander in chief in his role to react to an immediate crisis, as opposed to engaging in a long, drawn-out conflict such as Iraq or Afghanistan in which only Congress can declare war in a protracted conflict under the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
This resolution only calls for the president to notify Congress within 48 hours upon committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days with a further 30-day withdrawal period without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war.
It does not require the president to get approval prior to acting, as Obama now is doing in the case of Syria.
Analysts believe Obama has been somewhat ambivalent about the Syrian civil war overall. For a president who has disengaged from the Iraq war and is about to end U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, analysts say Obama is very reluctant to get involved in yet another war, since even a “limited” U.S. military strike could commit the United States in what could become a regional conflict.
In his Aug. 31 White House address, Obama not only authorized the use of military force but decided, under pressure, to engage Congress, which doesn’t come back into session until Sept. 9.
Obama said he “would seek” congressional authorization, giving him some wiggle room in the final decision process, against the backdrop of a rejection a week earlier by the British Parliament, forcing Prime Minister David Cameron who supported prompt military action to advise Obama that British military wouldn’t be involved in any U.S. action.
Obama’s comments came within 24 hours after Secretary of State John Kerry made an impassioned “we know” speech, suggesting that military action could follow within a matter of days.
“While demonstrating that his administration has not wavered in its position, Obama is also subtly and strategically creating room for a possible exit from this decision if Congress votes against U.S. action in Syria,” according to an analysis by the open intelligence group Stratfor.
There is an argument that Obama didn’t have to go to Congress to undertake a military strike, as opposed to getting involved in a long, drawn-out conflict.
“By working with senior lawmakers, the administration could justify a strike by arguing that it had engaged with the country’s representatives,” the Stratfor analysis said.
However, Congress could vote against any action, according to congressional observers. Then what does the administration do?
Analysts agree that it could get Obama off the hook from his earlier comments that Syrian use of chemical weapons was a “red line.”
It could be argued that the Obama administration responded to that “red line” when it agreed to assist the Syrian opposition with increased assistance, but short of lethal weapons which it has been seeking for some months.
Obama’s latest decision, however, doesn’t bode well with the Syrian opposition, which had hoped to gain some tactical and strategic gains once U.S. military action had commenced.
In announcing his intention to authorize military action, Obama can maintain some operational surprise, although the Syrians and its allies know that it won’t happen before Sept. 9 when Congress convenes and then debates the matter.
By then, the Syrian government will have sufficiently hidden its delivery systems and command-and-control structure which would be targeted if military action commenced.
Obama has stated he has a commitment from the House and Senate leadership that there will be hearings as soon as Congress returns, with no indication as to when it will come up with a resolution to act or not act.
“Obama has deliberately injected more time into this process for good reason,” Stratfor said. “He has cornered the United States into making a transparent, symbolic gesture on its own.
“This is not necessarily the path that the United States wants to take, and so he will pace the onus of the decision on the U.S. Congress, while giving time to possible coalition partners (namely, the French) to define their position.”
The waffling approach by the Obama administration also has raised longer-term issues of international enforcement of future non-proliferation violations, whether chemical, biological or nuclear, by a nation-state or transnational terrorist group.
None of the multi-lateral arrangements covering these proliferation areas has any enforcement provision, relying instead on the initiative of the international community.
In not seeing the Obama administration carry through with its “red-line” threat, analysts believe other countries will be encouraged to further develop nuclear or chemical and biological weapons without concern for any consequences.