July 15, 2020
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So why did President Obama not go to Congress about Libya but is willing to do so with regard to a much less robust action in Syria? What next?

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People have been asking why President Obama did not go to Congress about Libya but is willing to do so with regard to a much less robust action in Syria.

The answer is a pragmatic and not a legal or constitutional one. Obama did not need Congress in the case of Libya. He had the Arab League, the UN Security Council, and NATO, along with the 60-year history of the post-WW II imperial presidency, in which all wars are police actions and can be initiated by presidential fiat. Some argued that US treaty obligations under the United Nations treaty obligated military action both in Korea in the 1950s and in Libya in 2011 (Congress wasn’t involved either time).

But as I have been trying to explain in the past few days, President Obama did not have a favorable international climate for a Syria strike. As time went on, he became more and more isolated. The Arab League declined to call for intervention even though it condemned Damascus for chemical weapons use. Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and other Arab countries forthrightly denounced the idea of foreign military intervention in Syria, a very different stance than many of them took in 2011 with regard to Libya. The fall of the Muhammad Morsi government in Egypt, and the stigmatization of the Muslim Brotherhood, led to a 180 degree turn in Egyptian policy, with the military junta now more or less supporting the Baath Party in Damascus and hostile to the rebels, who are mostly adherents of political Islam.

Then NATO declined to get involved, with Poland, Belgium and others expressing reluctance. Poland explicitly cited its bad experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then the British Parliament followed suit. It was as though Europe viewed Washington as like the Peanuts cartoon character Lucy, who set up the football for Charlie Brown to kick and then always pulled it away at the last moment, leaving Charlie flat on his back. Europe was saying it wasn’t falling for the unhealthy US obsession with Middle East conflict any more, that some problems can’t be resolved militarily.

Then Obama’s own intelligence links cast doubt on whether President Bashar al-Assad had actively ordered the chemical weapons attack of August 21, which seems more likely the action of a local colonel who either went rogue or made an error in mixing too much sarin into crowd control gases. The Ministry of Defense seems to have upbraided him.

So by Friday, Obama had painted himself into a box with repeated statements that he had to attack Syria because of the gas attack. But as he looked behind him, the troops he was leading had thinned out faster than Custer’s at the Little Bighorn.

With regard to domestic politics, Obama would be pilloried on Capitol Hill if he backed down as his international support (and elements of his case) collapsed. If he went forward with a unilateral strike, he would be alone and exposed, and risk extreme reputational damage if the operation went bad. (What if a cruise missile went astray and hit a village, killing women and children? What if the missile strikes riled up radical Shiites in Iraq and US facilities in that country were attacked).

Obama made a clever political calculation. The Tea Party and the GOP in general had been demanding that he submit the Syria file to them. So he obliged them. If they say ‘no,’ as the British parliament did, then Obama is off the hook. If they say ‘yes,’ then they are full partners in any failures that result. Either way, the issue is taken off the agenda of the 2016 election and Democrats are held harmless.

Those who think a ‘no’ vote will make Obama an early lame duck do not reckon with how all the votes have been ‘no’ for some years now. Nothing will change in that regard.

Will Congress authorize a missile strike on Syria? I think the odds are fifty-fifty. It is not impossible that the Libertarian Republicans and the left wing of the Democratic Party will ally to defeat the resolution. They came close to derailing NSA spying, after all. And feelings against entanglements in Middle Eastern wars are far more inflamed than on the issue of domestic surveillance.

It is remarkable how important the Iraq experience has been in the debates on Syria, and how decisive. Even if the US goes ahead with the strike, it is likely to attempt to keep the action narrow and symbolic, and to avoid troops on the ground, and indeed, generally to stay out of the conflict thereafter as long as no more chemical attacks are launched. Whether it is possible to bomb Syria and then walk away like that isn’t clear; but it is the maximal Obama plan. The minimal one is to be able to blame the Tea Party for isolationism and cold disregard of the regime’s violation of international law.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. He runs the Informed Comment website where this piece first appeared

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