What Obama’s Gamble on Syria Means for Challenging Iran

His decision to seek ratification for an attack could make it that much harder for him to justify a unilateral strike on Iranian targets.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, file citizen journalism image provided by the Media Office Of Douma City, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian man mourns over a dead body after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists, in Douma town, Damascus, Syria. Humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, some 355 people showing "neurotoxic symptoms" died after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs earlier this week. The group says three hospitals it supports had reported receiving about 3,600 patients with such symptoms in less than three hours that day. 
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

Any­thing a pres­id­ent does sets a pre­ced­ent for the lead­ers who come after him. Ex­cept when it doesn’t. That is one con­sti­tu­tion­al real­ity brought home by Pres­id­ent Obama’s un­ex­pec­ted de­cision to delay mil­it­ary ac­tion against Syr­ia un­til Con­gress gives him au­thor­iz­a­tion. With more than 200 ex­amples to choose from in the his­tory of Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions over the past two cen­tur­ies, a pres­id­ent can se­lect just about any op­tion and still be fol­low­ing a path first trod by a pre­de­cessor.

Fu­ture White Houses will study Obama’s ac­tions. But what he has done may come back to haunt him first. The danger in Obama’s ac­tion is not in any pre­ced­ent he sets for the pres­id­ents to come. It is in the pre­ced­ent he is set­ting for him­self, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing Ir­an. Tehran is less than 900 miles — a two-hour flight — from Dam­as­cus. But Ir­an is seen as a far great­er po­ten­tial threat both to Is­rael and to Amer­ic­an in­terests than is Syr­ia, des­pite the re­gion­al in­stabil­ity triggered by the civil war and by Syr­ia’s sup­port of ter­ror­ists. If Ir­an de­vel­ops nuc­le­ar-weapons cap­ab­il­ity, Obama may want to strike quickly rather than fol­low­ing his own ex­ample with Syr­ia and wait for a de­bate on Cap­it­ol Hill.

That is why it was im­port­ant that when he an­nounced his re­quest to Con­gress, Obama em­phas­ized, “I be­lieve I have the au­thor­ity to carry out this mil­it­ary ac­tion without spe­cif­ic con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion.” His­tory and the pre­pon­der­ance of leg­al opin­ion on the Con­sti­tu­tion agree. Only five of those 200-plus in­stances of mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions fol­lowed Con­gress’s ex­er­cise of its con­sti­tu­tion­al right to de­clare war. Oth­ers fol­lowed con­gres­sion­al res­ol­u­tions such as the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Res­ol­u­tion that sup­por­ted Pres­id­ent John­son’s ac­tions against North Vi­et­nam and the 1991 vote that au­thor­ized Pres­id­ent Bush to wage the first Per­sian Gulf War.

But most were strictly pres­id­en­tial ac­tions, and no court has ever held they were un­con­sti­tu­tion­al. Even the 1973 War Powers Act that sought, post-Vi­et­nam, to pre­vent such solo pres­id­en­tial ac­tion has done little to re­strain later op­er­a­tions. And that law may it­self be an un­con­sti­tu­tion­al in­fringe­ment on the powers of a com­mand­er in chief — a rul­ing that neither wary chief ex­ec­ut­ives nor un­sure Con­gresses have sought.

“The fact is, the Con­sti­tu­tion is am­bigu­ous, and noth­ing that gets done can change that fact,” says An­thony Cordes­man, a widely re­spec­ted former dir­ect­or of in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ment at the Pentagon and a long­time de­fense ex­pert at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. “Yes, this is a pre­ced­ent. But is it bind­ing? No, not con­tinu­ally. It can’t be.”

Mar­vin Kalb, au­thor of The Road to War, a study of pres­id­en­tial use of force, agrees that Obama is set­ting no pre­ced­ent in ask­ing for con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion. But Kalb is baffled by the way the pres­id­ent has gone about this. Obama is “build­ing a new kind of pre­ced­ent by first put­ting the world on no­tice that he has the au­thor­ity to at­tack Syr­ia and an at­tack is im­min­ent — and then put­ting this pro­jec­ted at­tack on hold while he gets Con­gress to au­thor­ize it,” Kalb told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “He has, with this ap­proach, re­duced the power of a pres­id­ent’s word and Amer­ica’s cred­ib­il­ity in the troubled Middle East.” Res­id­ents of that volat­ile re­gion are “scratch­ing their heads” and ask­ing, “What’s he really up to?” Kalb said, adding, “He is ab­so­lutely pro­du­cing prob­lems with re­spect to Ir­an.” Even be­fore this, skep­ti­cism aboun­ded that Obama meant what he had said about pre­vent­ing Ir­an from gain­ing nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­ity. “Now, the doubts have mul­ti­plied con­sid­er­ably,” Kalb said. No one can be sure how the pres­id­ent will re­spond to any evid­ence on Ir­an. Will he, as he is do­ing on Syr­ia, ask Con­gress for au­thor­iz­a­tion to strike Ir­an? Or will he, as he did in Libya, by­pass Con­gress and act on his own au­thor­ity?

And when it comes time to strike, how will Obama sell the need to risk Amer­ic­an treas­ure or Amer­ic­an lives? No re­cent pres­id­ent, in­clud­ing this one, has found an ef­fect­ive way to out­line the U.S. role as the world’s only su­per­power when it is un­clear if the ac­tion is driv­en by threatened na­tion­al in­terests or by hu­man­it­ari­an con­cerns. With no Amer­ic­an in­terests at stake, the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion turned a blind eye to gen­o­cide in Rwanda in 1994, in which Hu­tus killed up to a mil­lion rival Tut­sis and their sym­path­izers. Pres­id­ent Clin­ton later called his in­ac­tion one of his biggest re­grets in of­fice. But few at the time be­lieved that Amer­ic­an troops should be de­ployed on a solely hu­man­it­ari­an mis­sion.

Two dec­ades later, the White House has had a dif­fi­cult time ex­plain­ing wheth­er the Syr­i­an mis­sion is a re­ac­tion to a chem­ic­al at­tack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 or a de­fense of Amer­ic­an na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests. The an­swer is that this strike is both. “We live in a world where the United States can’t turn every war in­to a mor­al cru­sade,” Cordes­man says. “But it also can’t af­ford to ig­nore con­flicts which have a ma­jor im­pact on its stra­tegic in­terests.”

The real­ity is that this is not a choice between hu­man­it­ari­an­ism and real­politik. It is both, and the two aims are dir­ectly re­lated. That is the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s most daunt­ing chal­lenge in win­ning over a war-weary pub­lic and a skep­tic­al Con­gress. In this case, you can’t sep­ar­ate pro­lif­er­a­tion of chem­ic­al weapons from hu­man­it­ari­an and U.S. stra­tegic in­terests. Un­like Rwanda, this is not an either-or ques­tion — no mat­ter the pre­ced­ents of past pres­id­en­tial de­cisions.

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