What a difference a day makes. In the last 24 hours the Senate vote, originally set for Wednesday to authorize a strike against Syria, has been postponed. Obama undercut his speech to the nation tonight, originally intended to ramp up support for the strike, by making the rounds on networks news shows and announcing he’d be exhausting “all avenues of diplomatic resolution.”
“We will pursue this diplomatic track….I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a non-military way…. explore and exhaust all avenues of diplomatic resolution to this.”
President Obama has now agreed to a UN Security Council-led discussion on Russia’s proposal for Syria’s chemical weapons. According to AP, “Obama has said the proposal marks a potential breakthrough that could halt plans for a U.S. military strike”.
Much has been made of Kerry’s gaffe, opening the door for Russia to swoop in and snatch victory from the jaws of imminent congressional defeat. But in a recent series of interviews on network news shows Obama didn’t seem disappointed by the Russian victory in the least. He said Assad agreeing to surrender control of its chemical weapons was potentially a positive development.
Predictions of how it would be a major blow to his power and influence and “shatter his presidency” if he couldn’t sway congress have not been roundly embraced over the last few days. Here’s Forbes weighing in, Why Obama Wins If He Loses,
[I]f he loses the vote he will win over the long run by escaping the distractions and drawbacks of an action that he himself is reluctant to take. Since he is in fact highly likely to lose the congressional vote and almost certain not to act unilaterally once he does, let’s look at all the benefits that will accrue to him when legislators reject his risky plan.
What kind of benefits? Syria has always been about isolating Iran and the road to Tehran runs thru Damascus. Relentless goading to attack Iran marked his first term from the get go and stalked him throughout the election cycle, pressuring him over declarations of red lines as well as sanctions he warned against that pitted him against Congress. Who could forget a little over a year ago Israel demanded a statement from Obama about setting a red line for attacking Iran? This incessant nagging whining lobby pressure has dogged him his entire presidency.
And last Friday Amy Davidson asks about a plan in The New Yorker, Can Obama Win by Losing in Congress?
The problem, as has become clear in a week of interviews and committee hearings, is that there isn’t really a plan, in the sense of figuring out what happens when the Assad regime reacts to the air strikes in any one of a half dozen ways. The Administration has done a decent job of persuading people that Assad used chemical weapons. It has done a very poor job of explaining why military strikes are the right way to react, beyond being a grand gesture. There has been a lot of talk about “degrading” forces; but what does that mean beyond breaking equipment and killing soldiers?
What if we’ve been bluffed? What if Obama never cared if he looked like the loser? What if taking it to Congress was intended to provide him with a mandate NOT to invade Syria all along, and not to set our country up for a war with Iran? It’s pretty slick marketing if this was his agenda, sticking it to the lobby, flushing them out and pitting them against the American public . Obama can really really win big by losing Congress, is it worth wondering if that was always in the cards? Only if you’re a dreamer like me.
Before discarding the possibility we’ve all been bamboozled consider this. When Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin requested an assessment for U.S. Military Force in Syria last summer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff responded thus:
Control Chemical Weapons. This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. 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. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access.
All of these options would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime. We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.
I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war. As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. We must also understand risk-not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities. This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty. Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere. Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid. We should also act in accordance with the law, and to the extent possible, in concert with our allies and partners to share the burden and solidify the outcome.
After reading Dempsey’s assessment the options appeared narrower indeed. “No less than an act of war,” over a billion a month, an inability to control the outcome and extremists possibly gaining access to Syria’s chemical weapons. Obama is either just plain crazy or skillfully manipulative. My hunch is we’ve been bluffed.
So, what’s he going to say to us tonight?