When a government feels a military action, be it an invasion, airstrike or otherwise, is necessary, there is often little that can stop the momentum towards the event. Perhaps the best example of this in recent history is the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which, despite the efforts of many to halt the runaway-train of neo-conservative logic for war, was widely deemed necessary and correct. I believe everyone reading this knows the results of that popular dismissal* of reasonable debate on a subject as important as putting a nation’s soldiers in harm’s way. With this in mind, it is incredibly assuring that President Obama has just asked for Congressional approval for a military and in the process has made a much more convincing case than Prime Minister David Cameron did a couple of days ago in the British Parliament.
First, why is Obama right to call for Congressional approval? To begin, the aforementioned momentum towards war has been arrested and the real domestic grievance against the President has been addressed. This also shifts at least a portion of the responsibility for either acting or not acting, to a branch of the federal government that will either pass a bipartisan measure for the first time in recent memory or will continue in its generally useless character. If the former comes to pass, the President’s sincere, and as I will argue below correct, call to intervene in Syria will be executed. If the latter occurs, the President’s credibility remains intact both domestically and abroad and the alleged irony that Obama supposedly faced due to his past opposition to the Iraq War has also quickly disappeared.
Now the more complex question; why is Obama right to call for an airstrike in Syria? For one, this is a military and intelligence infrastructure that has been identifying and striking targets so any suggestion that these strikes will fail in their effectiveness is misplaced. The US intelligence community has determined that the Assad regime has quite clearly used chemical weapons and political and military parallels that are drawn between this potential strike and the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq are entirely false. Saddam Hussein had only used chemical weapons over a decade earlier, and his nuclear capabilities existed only in the imagination of a CIA source named Curveball.
Legally however, this strike bears some resemblance to 2003. As this article in Foreign Affairs rightly outlines, without UN Security Council (UNSC) approval, whatever military action occurs in Syria will be, frankly, illegal. Much like the US Congress, the UNSC has polarized, not over government spending, but over the definition of sovereignty. Both Russia and China have, since the end of the Cold War, become stalwart defenders of absolute sovereignty that is the foundation of both the UN (UN Charter Article 2:1) and the more fundamental state system that created it. The other three permanent members of the UNSC, the US, UK and France have accepted a different discourse which claims that sovereignty is conditional upon the domestic application of human rights. It would be impossible to outline the entirety of this debate here, however, the point must be made that with the UNSC deadlocked on the topic of Syria and sovereignty, instances like Libya where there was a resolution passed will become more rare. The only true solution to this would be a reformation of the Security Council which is even less likely. Thus the UN, even with its forthcoming report on the use of chemical weapons that should confirm what Secretary of State Kerry has already outlined, has essentially become irrelevant in crisis like this. If the US or another interventionist power wants to strike it will and Russia or China will diplomatically oppose it.
I’ve strayed away somewhat from the actual subject of this post, Syria, where there is much more context than a convoluted argument on international law. For example, the obstruction of Russia also has just as much to do with their sole Mediterranean naval base in Tartus, their arm sales and Russian domestic politics than with their positions on sovereignty. So all told; Moscow is not likely to waver on the subject of intervention. Furthermore, the notion that these strikes will escalate the conflict through the Israeli, Turkish or Iranian involvement is incorrect. In fact these strikes will likely to prevent that eventuality and this will be their most important purpose. The US is playing its role, not as the “world police” which implies the strike are primarily punitive, but rather as an “offshore balancer” which instead aims to contain the conflict and prevent the much wider one of which Syria is a proxy war. This proxy war is not truly between states but rather between sub-state groups like Hezbollah and Sunni jihadists making the situation even more complex. As nearly everyone has said, there are no good options in Syria, preventing a region-wide conflict is certainly the least bad option available.
There are dozens more issues that feed into the debate over Syria, including the ease with which America thinks it should go to war and the overall role of American foreign policy in the world. I make the above arguments on the basis that America should play the role of “offshore balancer” and remain as the world’s foremost military power. That position includes a military industrial complex that I believe is hurting the US economy, however that is a topic for another article. All told, this is not a bad day’s work for a president that has been confronted at every turn with political lose-lose situations. I think he deserved his round of golf this afternoon.
* I admit that I was caught up in the fervor of the nation going to war, but then again I was 13.