After a week of national debate, I think I follow the arguments for the pending Syrian force resolution before Congress: air strikes won’t threaten Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power; and they may or may not deter Assad from continuing the devastation of his own citizenry (which, by the way, has been well underway for the better part of two years without any attempt at American intervention.) Bombing would enforce the conscience of an international community that also happens to be conspicuously unwilling to act, even under the auspices of the usual fig leaves, NATO and the UN Security Council. True, Assad is not even remotely on the verge of exporting his destruction to his neighbors, and there is not a shred of evidence linking him to any credible threat to our homeland. But we should push ahead in the interests of future presidents having the flexibility to rattle sabers with credibility: and by the way, you are likely guilty of being an unsophisticated strategic thinker or an isolationist if you disagree.
That’s a lot of caveats, and concessions, in the service of a hypothetical. No surprise, then, that the prospects for Syrian resolution are crumbling in the House of Representatives, and the backlash has even generated the inconceivable—a bipartisan coalition for restraining Barack Obama’s consistently limitless vision of his authority. But despite the weakness of the substantive case for air strikes, it’s still worth addressing the institutional one that is becoming the rationale of last resort.
The defenders of the Syrian resolution assert a variety of fearful consequences if Congress actually asserts its prerogative of limiting a president’s war-making authority (never mind the irony of suggesting that the system is broken when it works exactly as it is constitutionally supposed to). But the specter of future chief executives suffering a dangerously weakened hand when they rhetorically draw “red lines”, or assert that renegade dictators “must go”, assumes the hand is a particularly strong one now: in fact, that strength is always tied to the precise nature of the national interest at stake, and a yes or no vote won’t change the calculus.
The most honest assessment of the state of presidential global authority is that it is at its most powerful point in a singular kind of moment: when there is an unmistakable danger to American lives or allies, precisely the kind of scenario where a commander in chief would either have no trouble garnering congressional approval or alternatively, would be morally and duty bound to act unilaterally: a loss for Obama next week won’t cripple him or a successor from thwarting, say, a nuclear armed Iran that just threatened Israel; or a Pakistan gone rogue; or a North Korea turned suicidal; or in any of those instances, pledging the use of force.
That flexibility and credibility already diminish rapidly when America is in its global policeman mode. Egypt’s strongmen have seemed mostly oblivious to our various formulations on Egyptian democracy; Libya’s military proved more responsive to international pressure than American denunciations; and the Darfur slaughter was unchecked by American proclamations of genocide. When a president can’t imagine committing troops, or plausibly waging an air war indiscriminate enough to make a nation-state crumble, moral admonitions only go so far. It’s simply a fantasy to think any rational actor around the globe does not already weigh heavily the domestic constraints on presidential tough talk; or that Assad has not already calculated that the challenges of passing even a limited force resolution have diminished the prospect of a more aggressive display of power down the line.
So, a defeat of the Syrian resolution changes the future in what way? Just how would presidential decision-making be limited? I’ll venture a prediction: the biggest losers will be subsequent presidents who are inclined to hazard American prestige on dubious, half-hearted commitments that tangentially affect American interests, have tepid public support, and that are prone to backfire. Not a bad result from Congress showing it has a spine.
Cross-posted at Ricochet.com on September 6, 2013