Saturday, August 31, 2013

Taking the war to Congress

So Obama's going to ask Congress for approval to bomb Syria.  A few brief comments about...

Constitutional Law

-I don't think Obama needs to do this.  People keep invoking the War Powers Act but the War Powers Act is very clear: you have to go to Congress after hostilities begin, and even if Congress votes to end them, you have a grace period to withdrawal.  A president who fails to obtain congressional authorization under the War Powers Act has 30-90 days to act legally, depending on how events progress.

-With that said, there's no doubt that this will be a strong precedent for future presidents and future wars, and increase the pressure to consult with the legislature before bombing someone.  That's particularly true if Obama's measure fails and he's forced to abandon the plan.  This might be an upside for Obama personally, who could see it as an opportunity to restore the balance of power between the branches and accomplish a domestic goal in lieu of a foreign one.

Domestic Politics

-The wisdom of letting Congress determine foreign policy and make military decisions is, well, at least a little fuzzy.  I'm all for legislative governance as a general principle.  But the legislature in question needs to be minimally functional, and Congress isn't.  Its various pathologies--non-proportional representation, multiple veto points, the filibuster--make it very poorly suited for the task.  David Waldman summed up the problem with a tweet earlier:  "Stand by for the first-ever demand for [budget] offsets for a military strike."  It sounds like a joke but who's to say it couldn't happen?  The GOP caucus has shown itself, time and again, to be more interested in scoring points against Obama than anything else; why would this be any different?  The conventional wisdom is that a failure to approve action would be a political failure for the president; does anyone honestly expect the GOP to not take this into consideration when they're casting votes?

-Some people have suggested failure is part of Obama's plan: he talked himself into a corner on Syria, and failure in Congress will give him a graceful, if politically embarrassing, exit from the debate.  I'll admit the thought crossed my mind at first, but that explanation just seems too cute by half.  Then again, crazier things have happened.  Who knows?

The Effects on Syria

-A couple important elements of this plan are getting widely overlooked.  One is time.  Congress won't vote for at least a week, which means military strikes aren't going to happen for a while.  During that week, the hammer will be raised over Syria, while very public debate occurs over whether to let it drop.  That gives Assad a chance to react, which isn't an entirely a bad thing.  Knowing he's in a bad spot, he's got a chance to forestall action against him by changing his current war footing--no compromise, total war--to something more acceptable to the United States.  Of course, he could also hide his chemical stockpiles or fortify key targets, so there are downsides too.

-And then there's the other part of this plan, maybe the most important element of its effect on Syria. I read a Fred Kaplan column earlier today about how "shots across the bow" don't work.  He has a point: failing to shoot at someone isn't a good way to warn them that you're willing to shoot them; likewise, in order to show Assad that chemical weapon use will invite retribution, Obama would actually have to launch substantial strikes, not minimal, symbolic strikes.  But by seeking congressional authorization, Obama has taken the issue out of his hands.  No one can question anymore that Obama is willing to attack Syria, even if an attack on Syria may or may not happen.  And there's at least a good chance that it'll end with strikes being authorized.  For Assad, it's not a shot across the bow, it's Russian Roulette, and the barrel is spinning.  It's clever, because it demonstrates Obama's resolve without firing a shot.

Combine that with the timing issue above, and it might force concessions from Syria without actual war.  At the very least, it creates pressure to leave the chemical weapons at home: congressional failure to approve war this time doesn't mean the same thing will happen next time, and Assad has to know his odds get worse with each go-round.

No comments:

Post a Comment