Now For The Bare-pick’d Bone Of Majesty

On Saturday, President Obama asked Congress for a vote on a resolution supporting military intervention in Syria. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defence and the President have spent the last few days arguing their case to various members of Congress. Today, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel and Gen. Dempsey testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in an attempt to convince the committee to vote ‘yes’ on a resolution authorising the use of force in Syria. Understandably, there are many in Congress who are very skeptical about the need for military intervention.

This sounds, very much, like the start to a Hollywood blockbuster (think Argo, War Games, Black Hawk Down, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker) or pretty much anything written by Vince Flynn. Ironically, it probably will be the plot of a Hollywood summer movie, just give it a couple of years. Unfortunately, it’s reality, and one the President is probably going to regret.

Currently, 6 in 10 Americans oppose Syrian intervention, and 1/3 of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives has to get themselves re-elected in a year. During the vote for Iraq, the safe vote was yes. Now, after 10 years of seemingly unending international conflict, the American people have no desire to be the world’s policeman any longer. The idea of any type of military intervention is simply not something anyone wants. And currently, neither Secretary Kerry nor President Obama have managed to convince those in tight races that the risk is worth the outcome (or, in actually, what the outcome looks like).

The bill that will find itself in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow says, in short, it will be a limited and tailored operation that will last no longer 60 days with option of 30 more, and no boots on the ground for MILITARY operations. Here’s the problem with that type of language: military operations, are by definition, open source…that leaves the option of any black ops missions, which do not need congressional approval (and, Kerry did say he wouldn’t take any option off the table, including boots on the ground). The second issue is the time frame- 60 days with a 30 day extra option. That means, ostensibly, that should this resolution pass (which I’ll get to a minute), and should the unpredictable outcome of the initial strikes require a longer time frame, then Obama would be faced with a choice: he could either continue action in Syria without Congressional approval OR he could go back to Congress and request an extension. Neither option is particular appealing, and in reality it might be a decision Obama has to make.

The United States Congress is, at the very least, predictable in most things. Unfortunately, in matters of foreign relations and national security, Congress is always a gamble….and one some members of Congress think Obama shouldn’t have taken. Obama may be faced with a decision even more difficult than what to do should the resolution pass and he needs more than 90 days: what does he do when the resolution doesn’t  pass? It seems fairly certain that the resolution will pass the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and will squeak by once put to a full vote on the floor of the Senate. The problem comes once the resolution hits the House of Representatives. The House is, on its best days, petty, spiteful, and partisan. In matters of military intervention, there are simply too many unknowns to accurately predict the outcome… mostly. In reality, a resolution authorising this type of intervention has a very slim chance of passing the House of Representatives. Libertarians are non-interventionist, there are conservative democrats who are going to want to know how it’s going to be paid for, there are tea party republicans who will vote no because they can, and there is a portion of the House that feels that the resolution doesn’t authorise enough force and will vote no because it’s not what they want. Unfortunately for Obama, the question may not be “what do I do in 90 days,” but rather “do I do it without the approval of Congress?” The President has the legal right to use force without Congressional approval, but will he do it if Congress tells him no? The question is, can his administration (and in reality the Democratic party) survive if he uses military force after Congress says no…and, in reality, can Secretary Kerry survive non-intervention? The rhetoric in relation to Syria over the past few weeks has created a situation that makes it almost impossible for the United States to not act.

More importantly, the questions that Congress are grappling with have some significant historical implications. This isn’t the first time a President has been faced with these kinds of decisions. Eisenhower (Vietnam), Kennedy (Vietnam Escalation), LBJ (Vietnam), Carter (Afghanistan and Iran), Nixon (Vietnam), Reagan (Afghanistan), Clinton (Somali and Bosnia) and both Bushs (Iraq x2 and Afghanistan) were faced with the same problem: go it alone, or get Congressional approval? Obama has been here before as well, in Libya, and his own history should tell him it’s not a good idea. Congress, honestly, needs a guarantee that the President won’t act if they say no to assuage the fears of some members of him doing exactly the opposite (as was the case in Libya, and Reagan in Afghanistan and Clinton in Bosnia)….they’re not going to get that assurance, and that’s going to create some tension. Presidents have a history of doing exactly what they want, regardless of the will of Congress…so the question remains: should Obama have even asked for approval if he’s just going to ignore it?

Military theory lesson time: there is a theory (which I’m sure most of you have heard of it) called the Just War Theory: Just cause, just authority, just intention, last resort. If any of the previous have a ‘no’ answer, then the war is not a just war. In theory, that means that intervention shouldn’t happen…and Syria proves to be a bit of problem, considering some military analysts suggest that all four requirements are no and others argue against one or two of them. How does the President justify Syrian action to the world (and, more importantly, to Congress) if the intervention doesn’t conform to the just war principle… especially considering this could end up being a unilateral strike without the approval of the legislature? The law of unintentional consequences aside, the US is currently in a very dicey predicament…and if Congress says no, it’ll be even more so.

And lets discuss analysis, and intelligence, for a moment (the paper kind, not the brain kind). Intelligence analysis is a lot like statistics: you can always use the information to support either position. The reason that most raw intelligence reports aren’t printed aren’t security related, it’s because the average person 1)wouldn’t be able to read them and 2) wouldn’t know what they said once they did. The statistic I used earlier was 6 in 10 Americans oppose intervention…however, that doesn’t always mean that 4 in 10 Americans support it. When you say ‘blah blah 40% don’t want,’ doesn’t necessary means that 60% do. Intel analysis is very much the same…you can say that the evidence suggests that Assad used the weapons, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest that the rebels didn’t. Intelligence collection and analysis is a tricky process…especially considering that no analyst is completely bias free. As much as intelligence collection and analysis gives the information needed to make a decision, it is by no means idiot proof. For instance: how come UK and French intelligence puts the death toll under 400, but Kerry puts it at 1400? Intelligence is important, but you have to take everything that states ‘intelligence sources say’ with a grain of salt, unless you see the raw data yourself.

There is, without a shadow of a doubt, a crisis in Syria. The question the United States Congress faces is this: is it a crisis in which the United States should be involved? I don’t think Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, nor President Obama has completely convinced the skeptics that intervention is the answer…nor have they convinced those who want a tougher stance that the limited action proposed is the way to go. All-in-all, this is a political fight that, at the moment, seems the President is going to lose…regardless of the insistence of his Secretary of State that they won’t. And, in a year or 2, I’ll be writing a post on the movie (which will, hopefully, star Morgan Freeman…because let’s face it, all the good White House movies do).

[If you’re morbidly curious, here’s the transcript from today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing…it was almost 4 hours long, so I suggest reading:]


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