Let’s not let all the rhetoric about our constitutional democracy and our balance of powers obscure the reality of the presidential punt President Obama executed a week ago when he tossed the Syria conundrum to Congress. Our purpose is not to opine on whether America should or shouldn’t attack Syria. The issue is nerve wrenchingly complex and there are very persuasive arguments for, and against, taking action. That’s why we elect leaders (and Commanders–in-chief). The President, however, saw the national poll numbers on the question of military action in Syria crashing after Syria crossed the line he had drawn in the sand. So he tossed the decision to Congress. Trouble is, he knows perfectly well that the Congressmen and Senators are seeing the same negative poll numbers from their constituents. Let the attention (and wrath of the voters) be directed at Congress, he must have reasoned. All in all, an abandonment of leadership.
We happen to agree that Congress should be involved in the decision to intervene (or not to intervene) in Syria. A very nasty weapon of mass destruction that has been banned since the First World War has been brutally introduced into one of the most unstable areas in the world and one in which America does have important vital interests. In fact, Secretary Kerry testified last week that Syria has used chemical weapons 14 times since the fighting began. This is, indeed, a gruesome genie that has been turned loose after being bottled up for a century.
The President should have involved Congress as soon as we knew Assad, in the Civil War raging against him, had used nerve gas against his own citizens killing an estimated 1400 people, 400 of whom were children (we apparently had intercepts of Syrian plans to move the stuff).
A decisive and strong President would have immediately called Congress back into session and asked for authorization to take military action pending the final results of an intelligence assessment of the gas attack. Instead, the President waited for ten days while an assessment was being completed (and poll numbers were being evaluated), and then realizing what a limb he had crawled out onto with his saber rattling, tossed the ball to the most indecisive Congress in recent memory.
Unfortunately, all of our legislators were away on holiday so they couldn’t begin to debate the issue until they returned, which would take yet another ten days. No decision was made to interrupt the long congressional Labor Day holiday for something so trivial as nerve gas being introduced into the chaos that is Syria. It almost seems that pains were taken to dampen any sense of urgency over this new and grotesque turn of events in the Middle East
This, after the President drew his red line in the sand (yes, that is precisely what he did) stating that the United States would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. The message our adversaries in Iran and North Korea (and heaven only knows where else) will take away from this spectacle is that we have an indecisive and weak leader in the White House and, sadly, they will be right.
The Administration has been grinding out talking points about how the President’s punt is a show of strength that will demonstrate to the world the unity of our action. All of the President’s acolytes have taken that message to the mainstream media and the Sunday talk shows. But few seasoned observers in America are buying it and virtually no one abroad is.
Even the very neutral David Gergen, whose counsel has been sought by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, recognized the presidential “blink” for what it was. Gergen warned that President Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis could induce the Russians to aggressively involve themselves with the war-torn country. “Obama has looked as if he’s lost control of this situation as a commander-in-chief, which other nations could perceive as a sign of weakness… the way he went about it, it was so jerky and unpredictable, that I think it’s raised questions about just how firm a grip he has on the wheel as a commander in chief.” Gergen continued, “I mean, after all, starting with the drawing of the red line itself, as opposed to a well thought-out plan…presidents need to be seen in control of events and sort of guiding events, and not just reacting or bouncing around.”
Secretary of State John Kerry had to do a fast two-step after publically revealing that samples taken from the scene of the attacks proved positive for the nerve agent Sarin, which causes a swift and grizzly death. His initial remarks were direct and unvarnished. They were delivered to justify immediate action against Assad’s gas assault on civilians.
Shortly before President Obama announced his decision to defer to Congress, and right after the UK Prime Minister ruled out trying to persuade his government to reconsider its thumbs-down decision on interfering in Syria, Secretary Kerry was still insisting that Washington would stick to its timetable for a weekend strike.
But then came the President’s Rose Garden shuffle, leaving Kerry with little to say other than to urge Congress to consider the security of US allies Israel and Jordan when Congress debates and votes whether to authorize force against Syria. The President’s clumsy decision to toss the Syria decision to Congress obviously caught both Secretary Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel by surprise.
Kerry’s eloquent case for urgency was quickly rescripted to the new message that the US would “not lose anything” by going to Capitol Hill but would “gain the legitimacy of the full-throated response of the Congress of the United States and the President acting together.” Such joint full-throatedness will, we agree, be something to behold, but, so far, it seems quite muffled.
“I can’t contemplate that Congress would turn its back on Israel and Jordan and the allies of the region,” Mr. Kerry told Fox News Sunday in a series of interviews last week, making the administration’s new case that it is Congress that must act. Kerry’s over-wrought contemplation of the uncontemplatable raises the question of which branch of government seems to be turning its back on its allies in the region.
With a straight face, Kerry told the “Face the Nation” viewing audience last Sunday that Obama’s surprise announcement “makes a compelling case to American allies in the region that “the United States is acting in concert in a way that really sends a powerful message about our credibility.” Really?
Remember, the President had warned that use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” Assad would not be allowed to cross without repercussions. He later back-peddled insisting that it wasn’t his red line; it was the entire world that drew that line in the sand (the entire world except Great Britain and, it seems, all of the G20 nations). The repercussions as it turns out are to be a debate in Congress, and, maybe (although growing doubtful), a decision to lob a few missiles Assad’s way.
This is the stuff of second-rate movies, not serious presidential decision making. As the kids like to say in their text messages “OMG!”