walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 5, 2013
Congress on Syria: Going In On A Wing and A Prayer


The tea leaves aren’t easy to read, but at this point Congress appears to be inching reluctantly towards granting President Obama some manner of authorization to bomb Syria. But even as they come closer to authorizing acts of war, our elected representatives seem to be trying to evade the harsh truth about what they are doing:

The vote of 10 to 7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid bare the complicated political crosscurrents raised by military intervention in Syria. Two liberal Democrats voted against the resolution, one voted present and three Republicans voted for it. The Senate panel’s action capped a day of fierce debate in both houses of Congress that indicated there is a widespread impulse to respond to the deadly chemical weapons attack but deep divisions over how much latitude the president should have to do so.

Congress should authorize but not micro-manage the use of force. Once we are at war, whether de jure or de facto, a legislative body by its nature is incapable of managing the military decisions that have to be made. Responses to our actions by the enemy can put the Commander in Chief and US forces in situations where rapid and decisive action is necessary either to achieve the goals for which force was authorized in the first place or to protect US forces under attack.

As a matter of fact, once hostilities begin, the president’s powers as Commander in Chief would allow him to set aside congressional restrictions that conflicted with his military duties to protect US forces. The Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war but not to prescribe the methods or strategies of war. If, for example, during World War Two Congress had permitted US forces to invade Europe but forbidden them to cross the Rhine, and German troops were firing on US forces across that river and mounting attacks, FDR would have been totally justified in sending General Patton over the river. Under his war powers, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, an act that otherwise would have required a constitutional amendment.

The degree to which the current debate is over fine tuning the limits of action is a powerful illustration of the lack of understanding on the part of our political class about the nature of war. War is not a waiter in a cafe from whom you can order a dish on the menu—the chicken sandwich, please, on whole grain but with no mayo. Similarly, you can’t order a war to be composed only of limited strikes against Syria with no ground troops, not to last longer than x number of days, because it is impossible to legislate the enemy’s response.

Congress is snatching for fig leaves that will minimize electoral risks to its members, and the administration, desperate for a positive vote that will extricate it from the humiliating and completely unnecessary predicament in which its own rash statements have enmeshed it, is conniving in congressional self-deception. But we should be very clear: if you vote for a war, you will have to take the war that you get, not the beautiful imaginary war you have designed in your clever, ivy-educated, IR-theory stuffed head.

Syria is not the most formidable adversary this country has ever taken on, but its unconventional allies like Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have capacities which we do not fully know, and it is not clear what form the support of Russia and Iran for Assad might take. If Congress votes for a designer war and the actual war then veers into a more dangerous direction, it cannot then prevent the Commander in Chief from responding to military realities.

Congress must also understand that the polite fictions with which it hopes to console the voters back home are nonsensical fabrications. Bombing Syria is by any standard of international law an act of war. It may well be justified either under international law or just war theory, but that’s another argument. This is war, and once you are at war you cannot stop fighting just because you are bored with it and want to change the channel and watch another show.

Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.

There are better arguments against either of these choices than for them; this is truly a case of the lesser of two evils rather than a choice for any positive good. When making difficult choices it is more necessary than ever to keep a clear head and to face facts, even unappetizing ones, squarely. To vote for a designer war is fatheaded foolishness; your choice is binary. War or not-war.

The question that Congress is called on to answer is a simple one: have relations between the government of the United States and the government of Syria reached the point that violence is the language in which the United States must now speak?

We can hope that Syria will tamely accept a thrashing. But hope is not a strategy and the enemy gets a vote as to what happens next.

Congress, though, does not get another vote. If, for example, following US attacks on Syria, Hezbollah bases with Iranian advisors fire missiles that take out a US ship, Congress doesn’t get to vote on whether the US shoots back to take out other missile bases that threaten the security of our naval forces. That’s a decision the Commander in Chief will have to take on his own, based on pressing military considerations that cannot wait to allow Congress to posture and position itself and craft disingenuous resolutions about.

A declaration of war, even when euphemistically called an ‘authorization to use military force’ against a sovereign government, is a serious thing. That can be hard for Washington, a place filled with deeply unserious people, to grasp. It grants very broad powers to the executive on the presumption that the country faces a serious threat to its security or its vital interests. War is an even more serious thing than a declaration. It has its own logic, its own nature, its own unpredictable consequences.

Congress authorized war in Iraq in the manner of a patron ordering a dish at a restaurant. Then, when the WMD didn’t turn up and the insurgency turned out to be harder to beat and uglier to fight than we hoped, many people in the United States wanted to send the dish back. “Waiter, this war is too spicy! Take it back!” But the war didn’t go away just because we came to think it was an ugly and misguided one.

There are many reasons to believe that a war with Syria will be short and relatively pain free (for those of us not under the bombs or in the ships and planes charged with delivering them). But there are no certainties in life, and especially not in war.

In voting to authorize force against Syria, Congress will be hoping for a short and inconsequential war; Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, however, will all get to vote on what kind of war we actually have.

[Photo courtesy Getty Images.]

show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    Exactly! An excellent exposition of the utter lack of integrity of our elected reprehensatives. However, I must point out that the President is not necessarily “the only president we will have for another three plus years.” Having dealt “US prestige and power a serious blow”, if he had a shred of integrity, he’d resign.

    • Damir Marusic

      Mr. Allison, I take it you’re a Joe Biden fan then?

      • Andrew Allison

        Not especially, but he could hardly do worse. The thought of three more years of amateur hour in the White House is truly scary.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Having met Biden several times, trust me…he is worse. Obama is a narcissistic twit who seems to have bought in to his own nonsense, but Biden is relentlessly stupid (and I mean that as in “IQ below 90″ not “someone I disagree with”) and deeply insecure to boot. Add to that his wife (who makes Hillary Clinton look like Mother Teresa) and his dubious selections of aides, and I can honestly say that I wish Obama a healthy 3.5 years.
          But yes, the current collection of nitwits in the White House is genuinely frightening.

          • bpuharic

            And yet we compare:

            Number of troops killed in wars started in the middle east by conservatives?


            By Obama?


            Hmm…there’s alot to be said for stupidity

          • ronchris

            To fascists like bupharic, the people who died in Libya are 0, and the fact that the democraps voted for the AUMF in 2003 doesn’t make them responsible. Got it.

          • Andrew Allison

            Re: “Biden is relentlessly stupid”. Seems to me the same was said of one of the most successful Presidents in recent history. Could it be that it’s not the IQ but the recognition of it. Surrounding oneself with smart advisers and surrounding oneself with idiots? Disclosure: I’m a paleolibertarian who couldn’t bring himself to vote for either Presidential candidate last time around.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I am not suggesting that this is about IQ (though I would be willing to wager big money that Biden’s is solidly in the double-digits), it is about the ability to reason and think critically. Biden has a certain flexible charm, and a ruthlessness which serves him well (his son makes him look like Machievelli, if you can believe that), but there is nothing in the way of intellect behind it.
            The senior aides in the Senate (of both parties) have a semi-secret informal poll each year as to who the smartest and dumbest Senators are. At the time he became VP, Biden had won dumbest 10 years running, and had no serious competition. If it matters, the current ‘champ’ is Patty Murray, with Barbara Boxer a close second. Remember, these evaluations are based on votes from aides in BOTH parties…

          • Andrew Allison

            Who do they think the smartest ones are?
            (FWIW, I’m 20 years more appreciative of the wisdom of the Founders than you are LOL)

          • f1b0nacc1

            Not that it matters, but I am something of a libertarian learning conservative myself. I must admit, as I get older (I am 54 now…sigh), and see more and more the wisdom of our Founders, I move increasingly to the libertarian (small ‘l’) camp myself!

    • bpuharic

      Conservatives killed 4400 US troops and blew a 2 trillion dollar hole in the budget. Under your idea, Bush should have been impeached.

      • GardenGnomeLF

        Actually Conservatives killed no one. Jihadis (who the Democrats constantly defend and ally with) are the ones who killed people. Democrats want them as citizens of America and bring them here to blow up marathons.

        Meanwhile the deaths in Afghanistan under Obama is more than under Bush.

        Libya is a chaotic nightmare, thanks to Obama and Hillary and led to American deaths.

        And let us not forget the tens of thousands killed in wars started by Socialists like LBJ.

        • bpuharic

          Actually it’s teh GOP that defends Islamists

          Item: The week after 9/11, Grover Norquist sponsored CAIR at the White House. CAIR is America’s largest Islamist organization

          Item: Dinesh D’Sousza a noted conservative, has suggested building alliances with US Islamists to fight gay marriage

          And we wouldn’t have BEEN in Afghanistan under OBama if BUSH hadn’t failed in BOTH Afghanistan AND Iraq

          Bush and conservatives lied about IRaq

          They killed 4400 US troops

          Spent 2 trillion

          For NOTHING.

          And LBJ is as much a socialist as Paul Ryan is a nazi

          I suggest you lay off the ‘socialist’ shtick

          Your right wingers us it ALL the time. It’s such a cliche

    • HenryBowman419

      He can’t resign until his goal of of the Muslim Brotherhood running most of North Africa and the Middle East has been achieved.

      • bpuharic

        Let me try an equally stupid comment:

        George Bush wanted the nazis to run N Africa

        Golly! This is fun!

        Paranoia is a great game.

  • Boritz

    ***Congress will be hoping for a short and inconsequential war; Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, however, will all get to vote on what kind of war we actually have.***
    They wouldn’t adopt a strategy of giving us the opposite of what we want, would they?

  • USNK2

    I disagree with the VM premise that “…our elected representatives seem to be trying to evade the harsh truth about what they are doing…”
    This looks far more like a Confidence/No confidence vote of a parliamentary system.
    Except for MA Sen. Markey who actually voted “Present”, his way of signalling how much he wants to show his confidence in this CinC without any missile launches????
    Anyway, rumour has it the House won’t get to any full vote ‘for a few weeks’. Are they waiting for the Sochi2014 Olympic torch lighting in Greece on Oct. 6?

  • juliusstahl

    This is one of the most insightful and clarifying articles I have seen.

    I think Congress needs to vote no on a war with Syria to spare the Syrian people the incompetence and fecklessness of our Commander in Chief.

    If there is anyone who has an “imaginary war you have designed in your clever, ivy-educated, IR-theory stuffed head” it is the President judging by the disaster he fomented in Benghazi.

    • bpuharic

      The right (ala Peggy Noonan) thinks Benghazi is the worst disaster in US history (yes, she said that). Guess they forgot about those flag draped coffins that arrived every day during the Iraq war….

      • Tom

        By that standard, George Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, who suffered 23,000 casualties, was a greater failure than George Armstrong Custer, who only suffered 323 casualties at the Little Bighorn.

        • bpuharic

          Let me know when Benghazi turns into Appomattox, OK?

          Your grasp of history is…tenuous at best.

          • NCMountainGirl

            And yours is better? I am awaiting the evidence.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You have a very long wait ahead of you…

          • bpuharic

            Number of soldiers who’ve died in wars started by Obama?


          • Andrew Allison

            As is yours of the truth.

          • Tom

            Maybe I’m just dense (as you must assuredly think) but what on earth are you talking about?

      • Andrew Allison

        No, she didn’t. The subject was 9/11, and the statement was a comment by an opponent on one of her columns.

      • GardenGnomeLF

        You don’t even understand Benghazi.

        The attack itself was just what Islamists do. Absolutely no one is surprised it happened. That is what they do, violent jihad.

        The atrocious thing about Benghazi is that Hillary and Obama completely ignored requests for help and the situation on the ground.
        After the situation resulted in American deaths Hillary and Obama lied, and lied, and lied and blamed some video instead of their incompetence. Then they JAILED the video maker!
        Then they lied some more.
        Then they hid evidence, lied some more, threatened people into not testifying, lied some more.

        Incompetence and lies. That is what you defend.

        • bpuharic

          And you seem not to understand the failure of conservative ‘nation building’ which killed thousands of US troops and was one of the 2 largest single items in the debt.

          The atrocious thing about conservative foreign policy is that its failures last not days

          but years.

          Cost not single lives but THOUSANDS

          and cost TRILLIONS of dollars

          A one day failure I can understand.

          But conservatives think THAT is more important than the collapse of their view of the world which resulted in thousands

          THOUSANDS of US deaths.

  • bpuharic

    Let us hope our good president (and I AM an Obama supporter) has the good sense to back off this entanglement. There’s nothing here to be gained.

  • rheddles

    Going to war is like stepping through a door into a dark room

    A. Hitler

  • NCMountainGirl

    Serbia wasn’t a very formidable adversary in 1914 either, and look what happened. But then, as now it wasn’t really about Serbia. It was about which rules had the biggest pair of ball.

    Let’s stop worrying about saving face here and take a look at the big picture. The entire world is far from stable right now in both economic and political terms. Our leaders are children pla

    • NCMountainGirl

      Oops. It should read It was all about which ruler had the biggest pair of balls, and Our leaders are children playing with nuclear matches.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Actually, Serbia was a fairly formidable adversary, and as things worked out, they were more than Austria-Hungary could handle on their own.
      Your broader argument, however, still stands…

  • jeburke

    I agree for the most part with WRM. It’s unserious, unseemly and dangerous for Congress to start drawing lines around what military action is permitted. Then again, Obama did not have to ask Congress, no one expected him to do so, and most Members would vastly prefer that he did not. So, any blame for making an even bigger mess of the mess made by Obama’s “red line” comment is on Obama’s head.

    While I’m sympathetic to the argument that, like it or not, our nation’s credibility and leadership are on the line, so we have no choice but to support Obama, however foolish or inept his policy, as I’ve read and heard it from many sources over several days, I must say it’s not entirely convincing for two reasons:

    1) It largely ignores or at least does not not account fully for the downside risks of following through on a foolish policy. Becoming enmeshed in Syria’s blood feud and by extension the Sunni-Shia conflict and other vicious internecine conflicts across the Muslim world is certainly not in any US national interest.

    2) I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the fact that Assad is a Russian client and also supported by China. Not that our actions can be dictated by relations with Moscow, reset or not, but let’s face it, US-Russia and US-China relations are a lot more important than our relationship with Sunni Syrian rebels, whoever they may be. Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” intervention in Kosovo and merciless bombing of Serbia, even Belgrade, may be seen as the moment when Russian nationalists, including Putin, made up their minds to reassert Russian influence after a decade of everyone playing nice — because Serbia was a Russian client and Clinton waved off Russian objections at every step.

    What will reestablish American — and Obama’s– credibility is smart, resolute policies, not doubling down on stupidity.

    • Andrew Allison

      “It’s unserious, unseemly and dangerous for Congress to start drawing lines around what military action is permitted.”, not to mention unconstitutional, but the Constitution seems to be the last thing on the minds of either the President or Congress these days. The Republic is in deep trouble.

  • Anthony

    “The degree to which the current debate is over fine tuning the limits of action is a powerful illustration of the lack of understanding on the part of our political class about the nature of war…. But one should be very clear: if you vote for war, you will have to take the war that you get not the beautiful imaginary war you have designed in your clever ivy-educated, IR-theory stuffed head.” Power is exercised for much more than mere show and moving toward one extreme (regime change through degradation) or other (arming rebels) during indecisive civil war may avail uncertainties/unknowns (as have been alluded to).

    The Syria issue for many has redound to credibility – United States credibility vis-a-vis national image and foreign policy going forward (credibility being obstacle to an overture of power). Question for me is should a war be fought on such an abstraction alone. Further, does congress pass resolution embracing said abstraction or are there really other motives afoot masked by damaged credibility.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Is it ethical or honorable to go to war to maintain a President’s image? NO it isn’t. With foreign leaders laughing and sneering at Obama as an incompetent weakling, the President has very little authority or credibility left to lose, and if Obama is to regain any, congress cannot give it to him, he will have to earn it.
    The 1st Law of Hand Grenades is: Never give a monkey a Hand Grenade.

    • bpuharic

      Hmmm…black president…’monkey’ analogy…..

      • ronchris

        hmm – defending the indefensible? I know – RACE CARD TIME!

      • GardenGnomeLF

        According to racists like you, black people are not allowed to have their incompetence pointed out because they have a privileged skin color.

        This is coming from a guy who probably said many racist slurs against black Republicans.

      • Dustoff

        Odd they called Bush a “monkey”too. I wonder was that racist also?
        That seems to be the fall-back for all libs these days.

  • Anthony

    The Syrian issue has grasped Via Meadia and large parts of its audience. But, Syria represents two levels of concern not explicitly noted in essay: 1) response to chemical use on populace; 2) small Syrian client state of Iran and long-term effects on region given war initiation. Simply, our involvement alone changes very little on ground – civil war continues and parties remain bellicose. More than a congressional authorization, a congressional recognition of Syria in relation to both its neighbors and U.S. geopolitical interests post internecine resolution ought to be order of business in Washington D.C.

  • circleglider

    Because Pearl Harbor was not actually an act of war – just a limited air strike with no boots on the ground…

  • Anthony

    Is the economist full of people who aren’t serious? The writers there believe that you can support military action against Syria while basically taking a full invasion off the table.

    “The vision thing
    These sceptics are fighting the last war. Syria is not Iraq. The evidence that the regime has committed atrocities is clear beyond doubt.
    Even if Mr Assad defies America after a strike by unleashing yet more sarin, Mr Obama is not about to invade.”

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