Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Future of US Foreign Policy? Obama, Congress, and the Syria Question

I've written a few things on Syria recently, including my best guess as to what the likely US response will be. As regular readers (all three of you) will know, I tend to stay away from the "what should we do" questions and steer more in the direction of analysis - what likely will or won't happen.

If you're a fan of the former, the best piece I've read on evaluating the options in Syria was written the other day by Ora Szekely and posted to Political Violence @ a Glance. Szekely is a former student of my friend & co-author Steve Saideman, which speaks well of both of them. Szekely's take is very thorough and well thought out, and comes to a surprising conclusion - that while missile strikes are likely useless or even counterproductive (that we knew), the best thing we could do is send aid for the refugees. I encourage readers here to go and check out the entire piece - it's a good antidote to the simplicities of Peter Parker punditry ("With great power comes great responsibility" - an awkward guide at best to foreign policy).

As the debate continues in the US, I've seen no changes in the major political forces to suggest that the outcome will be anything other that what I've already predicted. International reaction is still mixed; Congressional support is dubious at best; and public opinion is still against it. Moreover, the options have narrowed down pretty much to two: missile strikes or nothing. Since these are the two outcomes I predicted as mostly likely, I'm most of the way there.

What strikes me as interesting in the process of getting to a final decision - even if that decision is to not strike - is Obama's choice to formally ask Congress for an Authorization to Use Military Force. These kinds of joint resolutions long ago took the place of declarations of war. And for major campaigns (Afghanistan, Iraq) Presidents have still asked for Congressional approval through AUMF resolutions. But for minor attacks (up to and including the brief ground invasion of Panama to remove Manuel Noriega, as well as the bombing campaign in Kosovo, missile strikes on Iraq in the 1990s, and a host of others), Presidents have generally ignored Congress and just ordered the missiles to fly. So why is Obama doing it here?

We can only speculate, of course. But there are a number of interesting possibilities:

- After the Bush War Presidency, this is an indication that the pendulum is swinging back, at least a little bit. Much as John McCain might not like it, perhaps previous Presidential action was overreach and this is a "market correction".

- Obama may simply care more about other things in his agenda than he does about Syria. By going to Congress, he can lay blame for whatever happens (or doesn't) at their feet, leaving him free to pursue other goals domestically. He has nothing to lose by letting Congress make the choice, and everything to lose if he goes it alone.

- Since the Middle East is the Land of Lousy Alternatives, this could just be a way of getting someone else to pick one.

- Could it be that we have a President who actually believes in shared power across branches of government? Hard to believe, I know, but this could actually be a philosophical stand on Obama's part.

- Perhaps he's convinced that his masterful skills of political persuasion will get him the votes he needs. If so, what happens if he loses?

From published reports, Obama's decision to go to Congress took a lot of people (including many inside the Administration) by surprise. Whatever the US military does or doesn't do may be much less important than the precedent of this choice, if future Presidents feel constrained by (or future Congresses feel empowered to demand) the necessity of asking Congressional permission before bombing someone else. That, far more than the outcome of the Syrian crisis, may have a profound impact on future US foreign policy.

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