On Saturday, President Obama announced he will seek congressional authorization to use military force in Syria. On Sunday, Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s senior Democrat, announced his aides were redrafting the authorization. The president’s draft, he said, was “too open-ended.”
That has to be discouraging for Mr. Obama, and painfully ironic as well. A president who, for three long years, willfully chose to do next to nothing about the civil war in Syria now finds himself criticized by a party leader for getting beyond himself.
Mr. Obama has badly bungled Syria. Having publicly warned Bashar Assad not to cross the “red lines” of chemical warfare, the Syrian strongman called Obama’s bluff and used chemical weapons … twice. Some days after the latest atrocity, the president announced that he really meant it, and he would use military force to retaliate — but not in any way that might harm the regime too badly. This weekend, he conditioned his mini do-no-harm attack on the authorization of Congress.
The purpose of these attacks is supposedly to maintain American credibility by enforcing the president’s “red line.” But after the public dithering and backtracking, one can’t help but wonder: What credibility?
The president’s record on responding to the Arab spring has been a lesson in how not to perform as the leader of the free world. As such, many members of Congress are rightfully skeptical about the administration’s plans to retaliate against the Assad regime, even given its appalling use of chemical weapons against its own people.
The administration has tried to make a humanitarian case for the use of force. Secretary of State John Kerry has aptly described the chemical attack as a “moral obscenity,” and nobody argues with that.
But will a unilateral, mini military attack stop Assad from brutalizing his suffering people? Military analysts concede that Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons cannot be taken out of play by airstrikes. What if, after absorbing the limited “punishment” that the president promises are not intended to produce regime change, the regime decides it needs to employ these weapons a third time? Then what?
The administration will also have to explain how a mini-attack will increase the security of the American people and our allies — the ultimate consideration with contemplating the use of military power.
For the last several years, the administration has not only dithered over Syria, it has also targeted the American military for spending cuts — both before sequestration and then on top of the sequestration cuts. The cuts have come despite warnings from the highest levels of defense leadership that they would inevitably result in reduced military capacity and readiness.