Something very scary is happening this week: President Obama is involving Congress in American foreign policy
Asking Congress to approve military action against Syria will delay what should be a swift response, and will risk harming America’s international credibility by having established foreign policy cast aside by rebellious lawmakers.
In an ideal world, Congress would be able to handle the Syrian situation without any problems. Since Obama repeatedly warned Assad about the consequences of using chemical weapons, Congress would swiftly approve the military action necessary to maintain American credibility. Senators might ask questions and provide valuable input, but they would also come together to support the President and send a clear message that America is united on foreign policy.
This pragmatic Congress exists only in the history books. The era of solons like Sam Nunn, John Warner, and Dick Lugar, men serious about foreign policy and aware that some issues are too important for political posturing, is over. Instead, the current Congress treats foreign policy as an opportunity to gin up their media coverage through thirty second sound bites that ignore all the major issues about Syrian intervention.
During Senate hearings, Rand Paul asked Secretary of State John Kerry, “How do you ask a man to be the first man to die for a mistake?” Ted Cruz, who never misses an opportunity to castigate President Obama, mocked the Syrian intervention as turning America’s military into the “Air Force for Al-Qaeda.”
The entire debate insisted on viewing Syrian intervention as identical to the American military misadventure in Iraq. This is the same mistake Congress made when it debated the War in Iraq, and compared it to the successful intervention in Kosovo despite obvious differences.
In reality, the situations are radically different. Obama is not suggesting anything like the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In Iraq, America removed a government and took responsibility for rebuilding the nation. In Syria, we will be lobbing a few cruise missiles and then walking away.
The motive is not really humanitarian; nations have used poison gas against rebels before without an American response, most notably Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Clinton administration. Instead, the strikes matter because they reinforce American diplomatic credibility. Obama has said that poison gas would be his “red line” to strike Syria. If he does not follow through, other nations will remember when America next states a policy for military action.
Given the challenges America faces in international affairs, credibility is as important as our tangible military assets. Paradoxically, the belief that we will use force often eliminates the need to use it.
If we want to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we need them to believe that nuclear proliferation would be grounds for a military attack.
Credibility isn’t just important for threats, but for economic agreements as well. America is currently negociating a trade deal with the European Union, and that agreement will be dead in the water without trust. If we don’t follow through on Syria because it’s unpopular, Europeans could question whether or not we’d follow through on a trade deal if it became unpopular.
The strikes will not change the situation on the ground in Syria. It will remain a stalemate, since the rebels are unable to defeat the Syrian air force and the government is unable to reclaim enough territory to actually govern.
It is certainly cynical to spend billions and risk human lives to make good on a hastily conceived threat. But it is a cynical world out there, and a few billion dollars and some cruise missiles are a small price to pay to maintain international credibility.