Congress Could now Alter our Militarized approach to the Middle East– But likely Won’t (Bacevich)

Andrew J. Bacevich writes at Tomdispatch

Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking.  On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines.  Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.  

In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated U.S. attack against Syria.  Obama hadn’t, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the U.S. would “go it alone” in punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its bad behavior.  Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.

Obama thereby brought to a screeching halt a process extending back over six decades in which successive inhabitants of the Oval Office had arrogated to themselves (or had thrust upon them) ever wider prerogatives in deciding when and against whom the United States should wage war.  Here was one point on which every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush had agreed: on matters related to national security, the authority of the commander-in-chief has no fixed limits.  When it comes to keeping the country safe and securing its vital interests, presidents can do pretty much whatever they see fit.

Here, by no means incidentally, lies the ultimate the source of the stature and prestige that defines the imperial presidency and thereby shapes (or distorts) the American political system.  Sure, the quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are classy, but what really endowed the postwar war presidency with its singular aura were the missiles, bombers, and carrier battle groups that responded to the commands of one man alone.  What’s the bully pulpit in comparison to having the 82nd Airborne and SEAL Team Six at your beck and call?

Now, in effect, Obama was saying to Congress: I’m keen to launch a war of choice.  But first I want you guys to okay it.  In politics, where voluntarily forfeiting power is an unnatural act, Obama’s invitation qualifies as beyond unusual.  Whatever the calculations behind his move, its effect rates somewhere between unprecedented and positively bizarre — the heir to imperial prerogatives acting, well, decidedly unimperial.

Obama is a constitutional lawyer, of course, and it’s pleasant to imagine that he acted out of due regard for what Article 1, Section 8, of that document plainly states, namely that “the Congress shall have power…  to declare war.”  Take his explanation at face value and the president’s decision ought to earn plaudits from strict constructionists across the land.  The Federalist Society should offer Obama an honorary lifetime membership.

Of course, seasoned political observers, understandably steeped in cynicism, dismissed the president’s professed rationale out of hand and immediately began speculating about his actual motivation.  The most popular explanation was this: having painted himself into a corner, Obama was trying to lure members of the legislative branch into joining him there.  Rather than a belated conversion experience, the president’s literal reading of the Constitution actually amounted to a sneaky political ruse.

After all, the president had gotten himself into a pickle by declaring back in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad would cross a supposedly game-changing “red line.”  When the Syrians (apparently) called his bluff, Obama found himself facing uniformly unattractive military options that ranged from the patently risky — joining forces with the militants intent on toppling Assad — to the patently pointless — firing a “shot across the bow” of the Syrian ship of state.

Meanwhile, the broader American public, awakening from its summertime snooze, was demonstrating remarkably little enthusiasm for yet another armed intervention in the Middle East.  Making matters worse still, U.S. military leaders and many members of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were expressing serious reservations or actual opposition. Press reports even cited leaks by unnamed officials who characterized the intelligence linking Assad to the chemical attacks as no “slam dunk,” a painful reminder of how bogus information had paved the way for the disastrous and unnecessary Iraq War.  For the White House, even a hint that Obama in 2013 might be replaying the Bush scenario of 2003 was anathema.

The president also discovered that recruiting allies to join him in this venture was proving a hard sell.  It wasn’t just the Arab League’s refusal to give an administration strike against Syria its seal of approval, although that was bad enough.  Jordan’s King Abdullah, America’s “closest ally in the Arab world,” publicly announced that he favored talking to Syria rather than bombing it.  As for Iraq, that previous beneficiary of American liberation, its government was refusing even to allow U.S. forces access to its airspace.  Ingrates!

For Obama, the last straw may have come when America’s most reliable (not to say subservient) European partner refused to enlist in yet another crusade to advance the cause of peace, freedom, and human rights in the Middle East.  With memories of Tony and George W. apparently eclipsing those of Winston and Franklin, the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to position the United Kingdom alongside the United States.  Parliament’s vote dashed Obama’s hopes of forging a coalition of two and so investing a war of choice against Syria with at least a modicum of legitimacy.

When it comes to actual military action, only France still entertains the possibility of making common cause with the United States.  Yet the number of Americans taking assurance from this prospect approximates the number who know that Bernard-Henri Lévy isn’t a celebrity chef.

John F. Kennedy once remarked that defeat is an orphan.  Here was a war bereft of parents even before it had begun. 

Whether or Not to Approve the War for the Greater Middle East

Still, whether high-minded constitutional considerations or diabolically clever political machinations motivated the president may matter less than what happens next.  Obama lobbed the ball into Congress’s end of the court.  What remains to be seen is how the House and the Senate, just now coming back into session, will respond. 

At least two possibilities exist, one with implications that could prove profound and the second holding the promise of being vastly entertaining.

On the one hand, Obama has implicitly opened the door for a Great Debate regarding the trajectory of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Although a week or ten days from now the Senate and House of Representatives will likely be voting to approve or reject some version of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), at stake is much more than the question of what to do about Syria.  The real issue — Americans should hope that the forthcoming congressional debate makes this explicit — concerns the advisability of continuing to rely on military might as the preferred means of advancing U.S. interests in this part of the world.

Appreciating the actual stakes requires putting the present crisis in a broader context.  Herewith an abbreviated history lesson.

Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would employ any means necessary to prevent a hostile power from gaining control of the Persian Gulf.  In retrospect, it’s clear enough that the promulgation of the so-called Carter Doctrine amounted to a de facto presidential “declaration” of war (even if Carter himself did not consciously intend to commit the United States to perpetual armed conflict in the region).  Certainly, what followed was a never-ending sequence of wars and war-like episodes.  Although the Congress never formally endorsed Carter’s declaration, it tacitly acceded to all that his commitment subsequently entailed.

Relatively modest in its initial formulation, the Carter Doctrine quickly metastasized.  Geographically, it grew far beyond the bounds of the Persian Gulf, eventually encompassing virtually all of the Islamic world.  Washington’s own ambitions in the region also soared.  Rather than merely preventing a hostile power from achieving dominance in the Gulf, the United States was soon seeking to achieve dominance itself.  Dominance — that is, shaping the course of events to Washington’s liking — was said to hold the key to maintaining stability, ensuring access to the world’s most important energy reserves, checking the spread of Islamic radicalism, combating terrorism, fostering Israel’s security, and promoting American values.  Through the adroit use of military might, dominance actually seemed plausible.  (So at least Washington persuaded itself.)

What this meant in practice was the wholesale militarization of U.S. policy toward the Greater Middle East in a period in which Washington’s infatuation with military power was reaching its zenith.  As the Cold War wound down, the national security apparatus shifted its focus from defending Germany’s Fulda Gap to projecting military power throughout the Islamic world.  In practical terms, this shift found expression in the creation of Central Command (CENTCOM), reconfigured forces, and an eternal round of contingency planning, war plans, and military exercises in the region.  To lay the basis for the actual commitment of troops, the Pentagon established military bases, stockpiled material in forward locations, and negotiated transit rights.  It also courted and armed proxies.  In essence, the Carter Doctrine provided the Pentagon (along with various U.S. intelligence agencies) with a rationale for honing and then exercising new capabilities.

Capabilities expanded the range of policy options.  Options offered opportunities to “do something” in response to crisis.  From the Reagan era on, policymakers seized upon those opportunities with alacrity.  A seemingly endless series of episodes and incidents ensued, as U.S. forces, covert operatives, or proxies engaged in hostile actions (often on multiple occasions) in Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, the southern Philippines, and in the Persian Gulf itself, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan.  Consider them altogether and what you have is a War for the Greater Middle East, pursued by the United States for over three decades now.  If Congress gives President Obama the green light, Syria will become the latest front in this ongoing enterprise.

Profiles in Courage? If Only

A debate over the Syrian AUMF should encourage members of Congress — if they’ve got the guts — to survey this entire record of U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East going back to 1980.  To do so means almost unavoidably confronting this simple question: How are we doing?  To state the matter directly, all these years later, given all the ordnance expended, all the toing-and-froing of U.S. forces, and all the lives lost or shattered along the way, is mission accomplishment anywhere insight?  Or have U.S. troops — the objects of such putative love and admiration on the part of the American people — been engaged over the past 30-plus years in a fool’s errand?  How members cast their votes on the Syrian AUMF will signal their answer — and by extension the nation’s answer — to that question.

To okay an attack on Syria will, in effect, reaffirm the Carter Doctrine and put a stamp of congressional approval on the policies that got us where we are today.  A majority vote in favor of the Syrian AUMF will sustain and probably deepen Washington’s insistence that the resort to violence represents the best way to advance U.S. interests in the Islamic world.  From this perspective, all we need to do is try harder and eventually we’ll achieve a favorable outcome.  With Syria presumably the elusive but never quite attained turning point, the Greater Middle East will stabilize.  Democracy will flourish.  And the United States will bask in the appreciation of those we have freed from tyranny.

To vote against the AUMF, on the other hand, will draw a red line of much greater significance than the one that President Obama himself so casually laid down.  Should the majority in either House reject the Syrian AUMF, the vote will call into question the continued viability of the Carter Doctrine and all that followed in its wake. 

It will create space to ask whether having another go is likely to produce an outcome any different from what the United States has achieved in the myriad places throughout the Greater Middle East where U.S. forces (or covert operatives) have, whatever their intentions, spent the past several decades wreaking havoc and sowing chaos under the guise of doing good.  Instead of offering more of the same – does anyone seriously think that ousting Assad will transform Syria into an Arab Switzerland? — rejecting the AUMF might even invite the possibility of charting an altogether different course, entailing perhaps a lower military profile and greater self-restraint.

What a stirring prospect!  Imagine members of Congress setting aside partisan concerns to debate first-order questions of policy.  Imagine them putting the interests of the country in front of their own worries about winning reelection or pursuing their political ambitions.  It would be like Lincoln vs. Douglas or Woodrow Wilson vs. Henry Cabot Lodge.  Call Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Call Spielberg or Sorkin.  Get me Capra, for God’s sake.  We’re talking high drama of blockbuster proportions.

On the other hand, given the record of the recent past, we should hardly discount the possibility that our legislative representatives will not rise to the occasion.  Invited by President Obama to share in the responsibility for deciding whether and where to commit acts of war, one or both Houses — not known these days for displaying either courage or responsibility — may choose instead to punt. 

As we have learned by now, the possible ways for Congress to shirk its duty are legion.  In this instance, all are likely to begin with the common supposition that nothing’s at stake here except responding to Assad’s alleged misdeeds.  To refuse to place the Syrian crisis in any larger context is, of course, a dodge.  Yet that dodge creates multiple opportunities for our elected representatives to let themselves off the hook.

Congress could, for example, pass a narrowly drawn resolution authorizing Obama to fire his “shot across the bow” and no more.  In other words, it could basically endorse the president’s inclination to substitute gesture for policy.

Or it could approve a broadly drawn, but vacuous resolution, handing the president a blank check.  Ample precedent exists for that approach, since it more or less describes what Congress did in 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, opening the way to presidential escalation in Vietnam, or with the AUMF it passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, giving George W. Bush’s administration permission to do more or less anything it wanted to just about anyone.

Even more irresponsibly, Congress could simply reject any Syrian AUMF, however worded, without identifying a plausible alternative to war, in effect washing its hands of the matter and creating a policy vacuum.

Will members of the Senate and the House grasp the opportunity to undertake an urgently needed reassessment of America’s War for the Greater Middle East?  Or wriggling and squirming, will they inelegantly sidestep the issue, opting for short-term expediency in place of serious governance?  In an age where the numbing blather of McCain, McConnell, and Reid have replaced the oratory of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, merely to pose the question is to answer it.

But let us not overlook the entertainment value of such an outcome, which could well be formidable.  In all likelihood, high comedy Washington-style lurks just around the corner.  So renew that subscription to The Onion.  Keep an eye on Doonesbury.  Set the TiVo to record Jon Stewart.  This is going to be really funny — and utterly pathetic.  Where’s H.L. Mencken when we need him?

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  He is the author of the new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (Metropolitan Books).

Copyright 2013 Andrew Bacevich


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12 Responses

  1. Several points:

    President Harry S Truman was rebuffed in the Steel Seizure Cases by the United States Supreme Court in 1952 when he ordered federal seizure of steel mills about to be targeted for a labor union strike. Without an Act of Congress, the Court held, Truman could not seize steel producers’ property on grounds the strikes interfered with national security.

    The War Powers Resolution of 1973 severely curtailed the authority of the Chief Executive in authorizing armed forces to engagements.

    Without an open-ended authorization for use of military force passed by Congress, there is precious little the Obama administration can do to commit forces in Syria – be it “boots on the ground” or naval or air bombardment of Syria.

    Professor Bacevich has been correct to assert that there is no “moral justification” to attack a foreign state for crimes against humanity that may have occurred.

    President Franklin Roosevelt never intentionally bombed Auschwitz or any other Nazi death camp, but FDR asserted that accountability would be exacted from the perpetrators – and it largely was. Few quibble today with FDR’s position.

    President Obama’s averment that poison gas use by a foreign state against its own people justifies American military intervention has shaky legal and historical precedent. Further he has neither UN Security Council authorization nor support from the Arab League.

    It should be noted it was the Arab League in 2003 that was the last entity to try to dissuade the U.S. from invading Iraq by encouraging further negotiations, which the Bush administration rebuffed.

    Up to 30,000 Syrian civilians were massacred over a 27-day period in 1982 in Hama by Baathist forces with hydrogen cyanide gas deployment alleged in order to quell Muslim Brotherhood militants within the city. Where was the American outrage then?

    • “The War Powers Resolution of 1973 severely curtailed the authority of the Chief Executive in authorizing armed forces to engagements.”

      Every President from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama has considered the War Powers Resolution of 1973 an infringement on Presidential authority. While Presidents have at times gone to Congress for authorization, there have been times when Presidents have not adhered to the terms of the Resolution. There has never been a legally enforceable judgment against a President who has committed US forces in (so-called) violation of the terms of the War Powers Resolution. In light of history, I do not see the War Powers Resolution as an impediment to Presidential action regarding the use of military force against Syria.

      • Agreed.

        The Steel Seizure Cases resulted from the filing of a lawsuit against the federal government by corporate attorneys representing steelmaking interests within 27 minutes of the issuance of the seizure order by President Truman.

        A concurring opinion of Justice Jackson indicated that long-term Congressional acquiescence to assertion of presidential authority represents a gloss on the power of the Chief Executive.

        Justice William O. Douglas, writing in a separate opinion of the Supreme Court in a decsion (O’Brien versus United States) upholding the conviction of a citizen convicted of buring a draft card, indicated that the real issue was the legality of the Vietnam War – which was never litigated.

        It is unlikely that the War Powers Resolution of 1973 – which was passed over President Nixon’s veto – will be litigated in a federal court with regard to any action Obama takes in Syria.

    • Good to be reminded of the very pertinent Steel Seizure Case, from which much of the better thinking on exec authority flows.

      The thing is that Judge Jackson’s opinion boiled down to how presidential power could be confirmed by strong congressional support or denied by a lack thereof. However, a shaded authorization in terms of authorization added little and would leave his authority circumscribed. The President should want to avoid congressional involvement altogether if there were a lack of decided support in that he could always assume tacit support in lieu of actively pressing his case. A tepid approval was an approval, but would leave him hobbled.

      Indeed, there’s a great history of congress/voters rallying actively behind the president post-attack where polling before the action suggested a total lack of support.

      This all makes Obama”s game here all the more interesting and hard to discern, as he would have very likely based this gambit on the well-known salience/upshot of the SS case to people who have studied this stuff, as he has.

      Makes sense to me that he wanted a way to bail-out of the corner that in many ways he has been backed into by the Usual Suspects. After all, that “Red Line” business had its “if-then” being that he”d …..what was it?…”? Nada Mas. I’m not at all certain he really wants to do this thing, and his actions as a whole belie that idea.

      It strikes me that he has had a full-time job stiff-arming all these characters who have been working so very hard to get up a war on Iran, in which context Syria is a means to an end. The real end being to keep the US as heavily involved in the ME as possible, to support Israel in every possible way. If you look at an attack more coldly it really would be more an Israeli way of doing business.

  2. Very astute and detail analysis, Mr. Basevich. Though I only served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam (31 May 1967 – 31 May 1968), I saw the human face of war on the wounded grunts. It left an indelible impression on me for I was stamped in the crucible of that experience. And I find historical analogies to the dilemma facing both President Obama and the Congress as both branches did before the passage of LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution. So it quite amazing and ironic to me that so much hinges on those four fatal words,”crossing s red line,” in our foreign policy options and the use of force in the region. This may be a watershed event in many ways for our country as you have pointed out in this essay
    There is just one point in your history lesson which I think could have been at least briefly mentioned. Soon after Harry Truman signed into law the National Security Act of 1947, George C. Marshall, then secretary of state, said to him, “Mr. President, I fear we have militarized the decision-making process.” It was prophetic statement, how far into the future he saw the political influence of that law in our present crisis.
    I oppose intervention in the Syria. It just simply fails to meet the litmus test as a real existential threat to our nation security despite the horrific nature of the sectarian violence there.
    The real crisis, and this is what baffles me, is in the oval office and in the halls of Congress. And after what I saw as a naive and young man at the base hospital in Vietnam, I learned a painful lesson through I view the world around me even after four decades. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I hope and pray Congress will vote down Obama’s resolution.

  3. Barack Obama may be a constitutional lawyer but it is difficult,after his enthusiasm for trashing the 4th Amendment, to think of him as having much regard for the Constitution. Having made a politically-expedient pronouncement in August, 2012, he finds himself embarrassed in August, 2013. So be it as that sometimes happens when one is a political narcissist. Unfortunately your assessment of the courage and foresight of Congress will probably prove all too correct, leaving us (and the rest of the world) subject to the inclinations of a president all-too-ready to engage in rash behavior cloaked in the rhetoric of anguished decision. Not sure I would describe it as “entertainment” and “comedy”, probably more as the worst kind of American tragedy as we all pay for the shortcomings of those playing leadership.

    • Being a “constitutional lawyer” and even a “professor of constitutional law” means exactly nothing in terms of application of those principles. Those charmers on the Supreme Court, Scaly-a, and Roberts, and “Pubic Hair” Thomas, and near-miss Robert Bork, are well versed in the lexicon and precedents and how The Rule Of Law can be invoked, seemingly plausibly and irrefutably, to screw over the General Welfare. Ever hear of “substantive due process,” freedom of contract and child labor?

      There are a lot of “experts” in the world — a set of skills, like how to manufacture chemicals, or nasty inorganic or complex organic molecules, or invent “nanotubes” that will kill you quicker than asbestos, is morally indifferent. It’s all the intent and application that counts, to the people who suffer from same…

      Don’t be thinking that since Obama is credited with deep learning on “The Constitution” that he will have any dedication to making it work the way We All, with our varying own interpretations of what Should Be, might Wish It Would…

  4. Thanks. This will help me when some old codgers from Friends House in Sandy Spring, Md. meet with Cong. John Sarbanes on Wednesday. Old quakers.

  5. I am surprised more isn’t being said about the lack of support within the American public for a strike on Syria. Why don’t Americans want to bomb Syria for a horrific, deadly gas attack? Why did they go along with strikes against Libya but not Syria?

    Bacevitch is astute in seeing this as an opportunity for non-interventionists to declare victory (whatever Congress does) and present an alternative. Instinctively, the public is seeing that the militarization of FP has not worked and been destructive domestically as well as globally. The real question if how to break open the debate.

  6. I wish I had more time to fully appreciate this post, but from what I did read it makes really important points that I am dying to hear anywhere.

    BTW: is anyone willing to take bets that the unnamed official saying the case for bombing was “no slam dunk” is Joe Biden?

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