Obama Can Win by Losing in Congress

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Photo: AFP/Getty Images

There is a glaring contradiction in the rhetoric the Obama administration and its allies have provided for Congress to approve the use of force in Syria. They present the decision as crucial — a “Munich moment,” the failure of which would be “catastrophic.” But if the resolution is so crucial, why did Obama bring it up for a vote at all? Why risk catastrophic failure when Obama could have simply acted without Congress at all?

There is an answer to this, a way to close the circle, though not an argument Obama can make (or even, for all I know, believes). Obama’s goal in Syria is to enforce an international norm against the use of chemical weapons. Obviously he can’t save the Syrians who have already died at the hands of the regime. What he can do is raise the threat of punishment for future chemical strikes. That threat can stand even if Congress fails to approve action right now.

The rationale for military action, which I somewhat reservedly support, is to make dictators hesitate before using chemical weapons. It’s clear that even the crudest of strongmen do think about foreign reaction when weighing whether to deploy these arms. Chemical Ali told his colleagues before gassing the Kurds, “I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them!”

Second, using air strikes against state power is a task the United States military can carry out pretty effectively. Air power forced Slobodan Miloševic to relent in the Balkans; it also likely destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program in the nineties, though this was not apparent at the time. Deep involvement in the social and political structure of a foreign culture is not something the U.S. military is equipped to handle very well.

For the purpose of deterring chemical-weapon attacks, the intent to strike matters nearly as much as the strike itself. Imagine that Congress votes not to authorize Obama’s plan. Then further imagine that Bashar al-Assad, emboldened, carries out another chemical attack. The media coverage would be far more intense. And members of Congress who voted no will have to answer for the carnage that will appear on television screens across the world. If the first vote lost by a relatively narrow margin, Obama would probably then call for a second vote and stand a good chance of winning.

The prospect of that happening may itself deter Assad. And when Republicans complain that Obama’s gambit of asking for a congressional vote is a way of shifting responsibility onto Congress, they are, in a sense, correct. Obama will own the consequences of action with or without Congress’s approval. But if it disapproves, Congress will own the consequences of inaction. And those might ultimately prove higher than it is willing to bear.