In many ways, President Barack Obama has rehabilitated the presidency of George W. Bush in ways which the conservative president’s supporters never could. This is especially true in relation to the conduct of the global war on terror; an area of public policy in which Obama arguably had the broadest public mandate to govern in ways radically dissimilar to his predecessor. This is a testament to the fundamentally static principles which govern geopolitics and warfare. And while the Obama administration has its share of victories to celebrate and mistakes to internalize, the White House’s conduct of diplomacy and military actions in the effort to resolve threats to American interests – both foreign and domestic – has been relatively competent.
Writing in Commentary, Elliott Abrams observed that candidate Obama’s aspirational foreign policy was mugged by reality after he took office. The president remains a jealous guardian of the rhetorical commitment to globalism, but he has governed in ways sharply at odds with his pronouncements from the campaign trail in 2008. Despite lacking a coherent “Obama Doctrine,” the president has protected American lives by prosecuting the global war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates aggressively and in ways that have complicated his relationship with his Democratic base.
However, the administration’s record relating to military action against a sovereign state rather than non-state actors is mixed. In Libya, the administration’s intervention into that country’s nascent civil war in 2011 was not well executed and has resulted in complications for the president both domestically and abroad.
Obama has already ratified his predecessor’s approach to fighting terrorism abroad. For this, he was scolded by his base which can be counted on to react negatively when Bush’s actions are validated in any way. In spite of the caterwauling from Obama’s liberal base, the majority of Americans are appreciative of the White House’s efforts to prevent major terror attacks through military means. Today, the president should again ignore the political perils he faces by ignoring his wounded base by following the examples set by Bush as his White House prepares to intervene in Syria.
1. Be Clear with the American People:
The stage is set today for Syrian intervention because the White House has leaked its intention to respond militarily to the increasing use of chemical weapons on civilian population centers in that Mediterranean state. But more will have to be done. It is reasonable to expect the president to make the case for intervention in Syria to the American people because both Presidents Bush and Obama have followed this course.
In Libya, however, Obama addressed the nation and shared his rationale for the intervention more than a week after hostilities had commenced. The air war over Libya began on March 19, 2011. The president did not address the American people in prime time about that effort until March 28. Obama utterly disregarded the need to secure public support for that war. In contrast, President Bush addressed the “grave and growing danger” posed by Iraq in a variety of venues for more than a year leading up to the war; from State of the Union Addresses, to U.N. General Assembly speeches, to the midterm campaign trail in 2002, to the Oval Office. A public debate about a possible invasion of Iraq was encouraged, even if the outcome of that debate was unlikely to alter the course of events.
Addressing the public and articulating the need for intervention prior to taking action in Syria legitimizes the actions the U.S. may take and will deprive anti-interventionist voices in both political parties of an effective talking point.
2. Articulate a Narrow Set of Objectives:
President Bush articulated the vague goal of establishing a democratic Iraq after the accomplishable task of removing Saddam Hussein from power. The latter goal, tailored and circumspect, was accomplished while the former was not.
Some suggest that the Obama administration’s goal should be to remove Assad from power or to impose and monitor a cease fire in that country’s civil war. Both would require ground forces to accomplish which the White House has all but ruled out. But a narrower goal is also acceptable: a punitive strike on the Assad government for using chemical weapons does not need to be especially broad. Targeting those weapons as well as Syria’s coordinated air defense infrastructure, runways, and air assets may not entirely destroy Assad’s capability to make war, but it would fulfill America’s duty to ensure that the consequences a state faces for using chemical weapons on its own people are tangible. This strategy would also be the most politically palatable intervention scenario for the war-weary United States public.
3. Assemble a Broad International Coalition:
Even though it has achieved mythic status that the U.S. went to war in Iraq “alone,” the Bush White House actually cobbled together a coalition of 25 nations to participate in the Invasion of Iraq. In Libya, Obama pursued a similar course – enlisting NATO forces as well as some Arab nations like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates as well.
The international legitimacy conferred by a broad coalition is most valuable if the mission in Syria creeps.
4. Seek Congressional Approval:
As members of Congress head back to Washington for the coming legislative session, the president should request an authorization of force against Syria. Bush secured a Congressional authorization of force in October, 2002, and did not utilize it until March, 2003. This important step prolonged the political debate over an invasion of Iraq in Congress and the media, but it ultimately deferred to the separation of powers in the Constitution.
In a period of history in which declarations of war are antiquated and the power to make war is increasingly the province of the chief executive, Congressional authorizations of force are even more important to the political process.
Legitimizing any action against Syria with a vote in Congress legitimizes the steps taken and shields the president from domestic political consequences if the mission creeps.
5. Do Not Let The U.N. Dictate Timetable for Action:
The Syrian government is thrilled to have U.N. inspectors on the ground attempting to verify whether chemical weapons were used. Assad’s government has borrowed heavily from the Hussein playbook in his efforts to obscure the facts from observers while still appearing to comply with U.N. demands. This is a tactic. Assad is stalling for time to continue pacifying the rebels.
In spite of the hundreds of United Nations Security Council resolutions against Hussein’s Iraq, the body never authorized military action against that state. It was a mistake for the Bush administration to fail to make a political case against the United Nations as that body’s refusal to sanction military action against Iraq helped foster a crisis of legitimacy when the insurgency erupted. The Obama administration did not make the same mistake in Libya. They should not, however, allow that international body, in which state actors like Russia will do all in their power to protect their client in Damascus from the West, to dictate the timeframe for action.
The Syrian people are running out of time. Similarly, the West has a rapidly closing window of opportunity to affect a change in Assad’s calculations by intervening soon while the rebel forces remain viable enough to still topple the regime themselves.
If the Obama administration follows these simple rules for international intervention, more closely associated with the Bush White House than Obama’s, the chances for a narrow and successful intervention are high. The politics of intervention are tough for this president. His political base is leery of intervention and is unlikely to reward behavior from this president which resembles his predecessor. This action is, however, not motivated by politics – it is the right thing to do.
The president appears to have already decided to do the right thing. Now, he has to do the right thing in the right way.
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