Updated: October 7, 2013 12:39PM
What happens if Congress says no on Syria?
That may be the lesser possibility, now that Republican leaders even in the House have lined up behind President Barack Obama, but if Congress does say no, so must the president.
Congress on Wednesday moved tentatively toward a limited strike against Syria with a first ‘yes’ vote from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama is seeking a vote next week when lawmakers return to Washington. The full Senate is considered the easier vote. The House — where no vote in support of an Obama initiative is ever certain until the votes are cast — remains uncertain.
We start from the position that a strike is warranted to punish Syria for a vicious chemical weapons attack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people. We also believe Obama has the authority to take action without a congressional vote.
But since Obama opted to go that route — he announced on Saturday that he would seek congressional approval — he can’t ignore the outcome. Secretary of State John Kerry this week said Obama had not yet decided whether he would go ahead with an attack regardless of how Congress votes.
It’s bad politics and, more importantly, bad policy. Polls indicate the majority of Americans oppose a strike. If that majority speaks through its elected officials, that’s a powerful force Obama cannot legitimately dismiss.
That said, the arguments favoring a strike, even in war-weary America, should prevail.
The most powerful is the most simple: the international community has a long-held norm against the use of chemical weapons in war. President Obama last year affirmed that principle when he set its use as a “red line” for Syria not to cross.
If no one is willing to stand up for that norm, it will be irreparably weakened, emboldening Syria President Bashar Assad and possibly others.
A failure to act also reveals a profound hollowness to U.S. and international warnings. As Obama explained on Wednesday during a visit to Sweden: “. . . if we don’t [act], we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity. And those international norms begin to erode. And other despots and authoritarian regimes can . . . say, that’s something we can get away with.”
Obama also on Wednesday tried to broaden responsibility, saying that he didn’t set the red line, that “the world set the red line” with its norm against chemical weapons use. It follows, he said, that it’s not his credibility on the line but that of Congress, America and the international community.
This is classic politics — spreading the blame — but it includes an essential truth. The U.S., in striking Syria, will be standing up for a just world community.
As a practical matter, there is also little question that a failure to respond would expose U.S. allies and Syrian neighbors Israel, Jordan and Turkey to a heightened risk of a chemical attack.
Inaction, Kerry also argues, will hurt the ability of moderate Syrian opposition to restrain extremists, leading to “more extremism and greater problems down the road.”
The goals in Syria are extremely limited, as they should be. This is not about regime change, nor is it about nation-building, goals that have gotten the U.S. into trouble in the past.
The resolution in play is limited, with the goal of deterring Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons. It prohibits the use of ground forces.
The limited scope is designed to mitigate the very real risks of a limited strike: it could lead to further escalation, it could draw the U.S. into another fruitless Middle East war; U.S. military action could further destabilize Syria and inflame hatred for the U.S.
It’s also important to note that Syria is not Iraq. The U.S. has learned about mission creep. The U.S. has learned not to march into war based on faulty intelligence. The intelligence on the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not in dispute, even if the number of casualties is.
U.S. lawmakers should approve a limited strike in Syria.
But if Obama fails to win them over, no means no.