President Barack Obama, sure to fall short of getting explicit U.N. approval for any military strikes against Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s forces and facing potential divisions inside NATO, has instead been assembling allies and partners in a coalition of the willing that recalls the Iraq War.
And where then-President George W. Bush at least got Congress to authorize him to use force against Saddam Hussein, Obama shows no sign of asking lawmakers to do so, preferring instead to engage in “consultations” with key players.
For a president who defined his 2008 run for the White House with his forceful denunciation of the way Bush led the country into the Iraq War, and then managed the conflict, it’s an unusual turn of events, to say the least.
To be sure, there are major differences: While Russia opposed both interventions, France is this time in Washington’s corner. No major allies have spoken out against the principle of a forceful response to Assad's alleged slaughter of civilians last week with chemical weapons, though NATO ally Germany has signaled that it opposes military action. Obama has pointedly ruled out putting boots on the ground — and repeatedly cited the Iraq War as a cautionary tale of how interventions can spiral out of control.
With explicit U.N. approval impossible to secure absent a 180-degree turn by Russia, the current president is looking for justification in international law, while Bush found it in past U.N. Security Council resolutions.
And the intelligence community appears to be sadder and wiser regarding the need to provide rock-ribbed proof to back up the president’s allegations than it was when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made his dramatic presentation to the United Nations warning of the threat of Saddam’s (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the United States is responding to what appears to be actual chemical weapons use in Syria — not relying on years-old incidents and suspect motives.
The White House is sure to dismiss any such comparisons as an exercise in prejudgment, given that Obama has not formally announced his response to the alleged massacre outside Damascus.
But it bears keeping in mind given that Americans probably won’t be able to weigh in formally on Obama’s escalation in Syria until after it happens.
That’s not by any stretch a surprise — the D-Day landings weren’t the result of a national referendum, after all. But at least Congress had declared war. This time, with polls showing weak support for intervention in Syria, lawmakers show no inclination to launch a formal debate on whether to use force against Assad.
The news on Tuesday brought the prospect of war with Syria almost to the point of inescapability. CNN reported that a formal U.S. intelligence assessment offering technical evidence that Syria massacred rebels with chemical weapons last week could come as early as today. NBC reported that strikes at Syrian targets could begin Thursday and might last “three days.” The Washington Post reported that military action probably would last no more than two days and primarily rely on missile strikes or long-range bombers. Reuters reported that Western powers had told opposition forces to expect a strike against Bashar Assad’s forces “as early as in the next few days.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the American military was “ready to go” if ordered on the attack.
On Monday the White House stonewalled some of the most important questions about a possible military campaign on the grounds that Obama has not yet made a decision.
Here is a rundown of the questions and White House responses:
What would be a proportional response to Syria’s alleged slaughter of civilians last week?
“I’m not going to speculate about potential responses,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. “I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals about potential responses or what might occur after any response or any decision is made about a response.”
Could the president act without an explicit authorization from Congress? What about the United Nations? (Note here that Republican House Speaker John Boehner has called for only “consultation” with Congress).
Carney’s response: The president is talking with Congress and allies. Is that a substitute for U.N. approval? “You’re getting into a hypothetical about a decision that hasn’t been made.”
When the question was asked again, the spokesman replied: “I don't want to speculate about what Congress might do when we haven’t even reached a decision.”
Obama did not try to secure congressional authorization for the intervention in Libya. There’s no reason to think he will do so now.
Could the president’s response stop short of military strikes? Is he considering other options?
“I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals about decisions that haven’t been made,” Carney said.
When could Obama decide whether to act?
“I'm not going to speculate about the timing of a response or a decision,” Carney said. (At this point, I should note that this isn’t about picking on Carney. Spokespeople — especially at the White House, especially on military or intelligence matters — are basically required to deploy these kinds of dodges. There are few worse sins in the White House than saying something seen as limiting the president's range of options when he has not done so).
What’s the legal basis for a military strike? (The president, a constitutional law professor, said last week that he meant to have a basis in international law.)
“I'm not going to speculate about a decision that hasn’t been made,” Carney replied.
Would military action be confined to retaliation for the alleged chemical weapons attack? Or would it aim to turn the tide of the 2½ year civil war in Syria?
This is one of the most important questions, and Carney provided an answer after initially refusing to “speculate” what course of action Obama would choose.
“The answer broadly is that we are considering responses to this transgression, to this violation of an international norm. We are continuing our support for the opposition in its fight against Assad. But we also have made clear for a long time now that there is not a military solution to that conflict. There has to be a political solution — that ultimately Assad has to step aside to allow for a better future for the Syrian people,” he said.
Obama himself has repeatedly, forcefully, and publicly warned against action that could pull the United States into a escalatory spiral in Syria.
What’s the point of having the U.N. inspectors in Syria render a judgment about whether chemical weapons were used if Obama has already decided they were, and by the Assad regime?
“At this point, we do not have confidence that the U.N. can conduct a credible inquiry into what happened,” Carney said. “And we are concerned that the Syrian government's continued obstruction and delay of the inquiry is designed to create more time and space for their continued actions.”
Translation: If the inspectors find evidence of chemical weapons, we will be vindicated. If they don’t find evidence of chemical weapons, it’s irrelevant.
Obama aides had made this argument last week, predicting that Assad’s forces would shell the affected areas to corrupt any evidence of chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry argued that Assad had violated international norms of behavior by using chemical weapons. Is that the legal underpinning of potential military action?
“I’m not going to lay out a legal case here because we are evaluating potential responses,” Carney said.
Why is the United States responsible for enforcing this norm?
“I think this is concluding that the United States alone is appalled by the use of chemical weapons in violation of international norms here, and that is not the case,” Carney said. “And I think leaders from other nations have made clear that they share our views about what happened in Syria on this particular occasion.”
Obama last week said that the United States is the “indispensable nation” on such issues, a reflection that it alone has the clout to act.