- September 4, 2013, 6:52 p.m. ET
Stephen F. Hayes: The Hawk’s Case Against Obama on Syria
Changing the murderous regime in Damascus should be the goal. A ‘limited,’ ‘tailored’ attack doesn’t merit support.
- STEPHEN F. HAYES
Perhaps historians will provide a clear understanding of Barack Obama‘s head-snapping decision to pause his administration’s urgent case for military strikes in Syria to seek the formal authorization he says he doesn’t need from a Congress he disdains.
Until then, the struggle to make sense of the Obama administration’s ad hoc decision-making and confusing rhetoric on Syria will continue. The latest twist came Wednesday, when the president tried to explain away his declaration last summer that “the red line for us” would be Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. “I didn’t set a red line,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, claiming that he had been speaking for the entire world—even Congress.
He was similarly considerate of Congress on Saturday, when in announcing his decision he explained that he is “mindful that I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy” and that the power of America is “rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
President Obama fields a question at his Sept. 4 news conference in Stockholm.
Mr. Obama hasn’t always been mindful of such things, boasting for three years of his willingness to disregard Congress. At Georgetown University three months ago, Mr. Obama announced that he would bypass Congress to address what he described as the urgent threat of climate change. Global warming, he averred, “is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now.” He has done the same on immigration and the economy. “If Congress won’t act, I will,” he has said.
Even on matters of war and peace, Mr. Obama has ignored Congress. He didn’t consult Congress before launching military strikes in Libya in March 2011, and on the same day a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed suit to force him to seek congressional authorization, the administration sent Congress a 32-page report that included an explanation as to why the president could act without legislative approval. The report argued that the limited campaign, which featured no U.S. ground troops, was “consistent” with the 1973 War Powers Act and does not “require further authorization.”
It is therefore not surprising that congressional Republicans, once likened to “terrorists” by Vice President Joe Biden, are skeptical that Mr. Obama’s decision to seek a legislative imprimatur on Syria grows out of a sudden interest in bipartisanship and the constitution. That the president’s longtime adviser, David Axelrod, gleefully tweeted about the political implications—calling Congress “the dog that caught the car”—only feeds the cynicism.
It isn’t at all unreasonable to wonder whether Mr. Obama’s decision to go to Congress is little more than an attempt to share responsibility with Republicans for authorizing an intervention that goes badly, or to blame them for constraining him if they don’t.
Nevertheless, the president’s political maneuvering alone shouldn’t keep Republicans from supporting intervention. What should stop them are doubts about his plans and competence. This is especially true for hawks who might otherwise be inclined to support him.
When administration sources first leaked two weeks ago the president’s parameters for intervention, they said two criteria guided his thinking: Military action would neither seek to alter the course of the war on the ground nor target regime leadership. This was an odd declaration of self-imposed restrictions, especially for a president who has said for more than a year that Bashar Assad must go. And it invited an obvious question: What’s the point? The president elaborated when he told PBS’s “NewsHour” that any strikes would be a “shot across the bow” to the Assad regime.
But in announcing that his message is merely to send a message, the president undermined his primary objective. A “shot across the bow” implies further action if the warning is unheeded. In his repeated assurances that any U.S. action would be “limited” and “tailored” and “narrow,” Mr. Obama has made clear that he has little appetite for escalation.
The decision to escalate is not his alone. As former CIA Director Michael Hayden said Monday on CNN, there is a strong likelihood that Assad and his patrons in Tehran will retaliate: “We want it to be one and done—the president’s made that very clear: Very limited strikes, very limited objectives—deterring, degrading the potential use of chemical weapons. He’s doing it, our president, to show resolve . . . . But guess what, Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies are going to want to show resolve, too. They’re not going to want to give the United States a free ride for this kind of action.”
Even Syrians who might benefit from U.S. military intervention are apprehensive about the limited strikes telegraphed by the White House. “A light strike would be worse than doing nothing,” Abdel Jabbar Akaidi, head of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo province, told Syria Deeply, a blog about the conflict, this week. “If it’s not the death blow, this game helps the regime even more. The Syrian people will only suffer more death and devastation when the regime retaliates.”
On Aug. 20, 2012, Mr. Obama described his “red line” on Syria. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime—but also to other players on the ground—that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
But when U.S. intelligence confirmed in June that Syria had used chemical weapons, nothing changed. White House national security aide Ben Rhodes declared that this breach of Mr. Obama’s red line would trigger “military support”—meaning lethal aid—from the U.S. to the Syrian opposition. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry testified that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons 14 times.
To believe that an Obama-led intervention will end well requires disregarding everything he’s done—or hasn’t done—over two years in favor of an illusory expectation that he’ll act with newfound determination to shape the outcome in a region ravaged by war. That’s unlikely.
There are many reasons for the U.S. to intervene in Syria: more than 100,000 dead, two million refugees, the repeated use of chemical weapons by a dictator who sponsors anti-American terrorists and is the puppet of a regime in Iran that is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror. The moral imperative is clear; the strategic case is solid.
But a successful intervention requires a commander in chief committed to changing the war’s momentum and changing the regime in Damascus. The White House has eschewed both. The only thing worse than not intervening in Syria would be a failed intervention—an outcome that will make future American interventions, by this president or another, in Syria or elsewhere, even more difficult.
If President Obama exercises the authority he claims and launches a serious campaign to end the slaughter in Syria and change the regime in Damascus, Republicans should support him. Until he does, they should oppose him.
Mr. Hayes is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard.
A version of this article appeared September 5, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Hawk’s Case Against Obama on Syria.