On Tuesday night Washington time, US president Barack Obama made a public plea to Congress to authorise a military action in Syria that he probably doesn’t want. The tell-tale sign Obama doesn’t actually want a military strike is the fact he was asking Congress for authorisation in the first place.
In August 2012, Obama told a press conference that the use or movement of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would change his calculus on military action in Syria. This comment was unscripted, and it surprised Obama’s aides who to that point had been avoiding any kind of commitment on Syria. Nonetheless, it soon became administration policy and has been reiterated many times.
A year and one day after Obama’s “red line” statement, over 1400 Syrians died in a horrific chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held Damascus suburb. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said there is no doubt that the Assad regime had prepared for the attack, though the strength of his evidence is disputed. Assuming Bashar al-Assad was responsible, why would he do the one thing that could provoke American military intervention?
Some analysts see it as a “costly miscalculation”, but others argue there was a coldly rational strategy behind the chemical atrocity. One explanation, outlined by political scientist James Morrow, is that Assad was cementing the loyalty of his own supporters. By committing such an appalling crime, Assad raised the stakes of the conflict and ensured there was “no way out” for those who support him. If he loses, the minority that backed him might be subject to equally terrible retribution. This gives his supporters no choice but to stay loyal and hope he prevails.
Obama was now trapped into taking action. If he did not indicate some willingness to attack Syria, his “red line” would be exposed as a bluff, and he would face credibility problems for the rest of his presidency. But such a military action remains as deeply unattractive as it was before the chemical attack. Despite Kerry’s promise of an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort”, it would probably take more than a few cruise missiles to secure a chemical weapons stockpile in the midst of a civil war.
So, Obama took what might be called the “constitutional solution”.
The United States constitution puts the power to declare war in the hands of Congress alone. However, the last time Congress actually declared war was in 1941. Since then, the president has deployed troops using his constitutional authority as “Commander-in-Chief”, sometimes without consulting Congress at all. Most of the time, Congress has actually seemed happy with this arrangement, which allows it to support military action without granting the president the massively increased economic powers that come with declarations of war.
On Tuesday night, Obama said he “believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress”. Anti-war Congressmen will certainly agree with that part of his speech, if nothing else.
But Obama could have got away without seeking Congressional approval. There is plenty of precedent since World War Two for presidents acting unilaterally in military affairs and leaving Congress to decide whether to invoke its rarely-used War Powers Resolution. This is precisely what Obama did in Libya two years ago.
At this point, it looks very unlikely that Obama could get the votes required in Congress to authorise military action in Syria. According to a useful chart from the Washington Post, 253 House members have indicated they are against a military strike while just 26 have said they are in favour of one. In the Senate, the tally is 40-23 against.
It is possible that Obama has reversed two years of profound reluctance to get involved in Syria. But it seems more likely that he would have known how difficult it would be to get a Syria resolution through a Congress which has tried to thwart nearly all of his initiatives. Congressional Republicans used to be reliably hawkish on foreign policy, but this is no longer the case with a Democratic president and an increasingly influential strand of thinking that sees military spending as just another part of government spending.
Above all, public opinion has been consistently against intervention in Syria. This is unsurprising after ten years of incredibly costly Middle Eastern wars which were also sold as being quick and cheap. Members of Congress have little incentive to support it. Obama, as a senator, would not have supported it.
Obama also used Tuesday’s speech to announce that the congressional vote would be delayed while the United States and Russia pursued a diplomatic option allowing Syria to hand over its chemical stockpile to the international community. While the United States and Russia had been discussing this possibility for over a year and as recently as last week, it did not appear on the agenda until Kerry dismissed it as a possibility on Monday. This spurred Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to publicly propose it as an option to Syria.
Syria quickly signalled agreement with the “Lavrov plan”, acknowledging for the first time that it possesses chemical weapons. It also suits Obama's purposes, allowing him to avoid military action without having to lose a congressional vote.
Whatever happens, things are likely to remain unspeakably grim for the Syrian people. Many have pointed out that chemical weapons are only a tiny part of a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people. But neither the chemical weapons problem nor the civil war are likely to be solved by American military intervention. The American public apparently knows this. Congress seems to know it. Obama, despite his words, seems to know it.
Dr David Smith is jointly appointed between the United States Studies Centre and the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.