President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
For now at least President Barack Obama has pulled off the remarkable feat of doing a lot and doing nothing on Syria simultaneously. Rightly calling the horror in Syria “an assault on human dignity” he made sure that that was not the only motivating factor for his administration since assaults on human dignity happen around the world every minute of the day. He also said the chemical attack “presents a serious danger to our national security.” With human dignity and national security demonstrably at stake in his judgment he went on to say the following:
“Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”
In case, you thought he was about to announce a military strike you thought wrong. He pulled himself back saying, “But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”
It was as if the president was giving the world a rare opportunity to witness the inner workings of his conflicted mind. It was a sort of “to be or not to be” dilemma playing out from behind the glass front of his own mind. It was an exquisite “on the one hand this and on the other hand that” display of competing and eventually self-canceling logic. I am not sure how this public agonizing over America’s constitutional democracy preventing him from delivering doom to Syrian President Basher al-Assad might have been viewed in Damascus.
At some level Obama ought to be relieved that he could defer the decision to strike on account of the alibi of America’s constitutional democracy. That is particularly because it was he who drew the red line about the use of chemical weapons whose transgression must trigger an unambiguous military response from Washington. With chemical weapons having been used and the red line thus having been crossed it became a matter of Obama’s personal credibility as much as a test of America’s resolve. It is from that standpoint the decision to wait until US Congress is expected to resume on September 9 should be viewed.
Although there are more thoughtful expressions, I am choosing to go with “Phew! Nice duck, Mr. President.” It is not for me to say whether President Obama privately wishes that Congress would not authorize him to declare war, for which he needs a Congressional authorization, or wants to take military action, which he can do on the strength of his office. In any event, some measure of Congressional cover would certainly help at this stage.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron’s dilemma was solved by the “nays” in British parliament even though the way he presented the case it seemed he was keen to take action. Sometimes we all need a posse to hold ourselves back during moments of heightened anger.
That said, there is zero guarantee that Obama would still not indeed take some form of military action whether or not he has explicit congressional backing. In the mean time, Assad of Damascus has some more time to enjoy the discomfitures that democracy surrounds those who practice it.