In Search of a Syrian Strategy

Getting past the politics – both domestic and international – almost all of the discussion about Syria in Congress and the media is about tactics. Outside of the context of a broad and consistent strategy tactics are futile. It is no wonder that people really don’t have an answer as to whether a token strike should take place; it is no wonder that liberals like Pelosi run automatically to support their president and conservatives like Representative Peter King of New York do the opposite. Arguments about tactics to no particular purpose devolve to petty partisan squabbles.

Even the question of how the Congress should be engaged is misdirected. The War Powers Act of 1973 – passed over President Nixon’s veto – struck a careful balance between the President and the Congress. Specifically, the Act says:
      “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to:
            (1) a declaration of war,
            (2) a specific statutory authorization, or
            (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

The President is obligated to notify Congress within 48 hours of taking military action and, absent the above criteria, limits such action to 60 days with an additional 30 days for withdrawal. We live in an age where prompt action is sometimes needed, but our policies require Congressional approval even if Clinton in Kosovo and Obama in Libya argued that the Act represented an unconstitutional restriction of Presidential power.

We have no declaration of war or national emergency, so it would seem that a specific statutory authorization is needed – the whim of Samantha Powers or Susan Rice being inadequate to the purpose. Fortunately, beyond the tactical “what”, the range of characters in Congress – the liberal Democrats (ex Pelosi), the isolationist Republicans, the anti-Obamites – would like to know what we hope to achieve and how that fits into a broader picture. Actually, the American people and our global allies would like to know.

Let’s dream for a moment about an alternative universe where the President had a grand vision of the Middle East – as Kissinger did for China – and saw America as a benign force capable of helping our allies achieve their objectives.

– Iraq would have been the bulwark against Shiite Iran. (Premise: the big picture is that the Shia -Sunni division is akin to the European Catholic-Protestant split of 500 years ago, with a Persian – Arab/Turk overlay.)  But that is crying over spilled milk; Obama withdrew.

– We would jointly work with our Sunni friends in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt to reduce Shiite Iran’s influence in the Arab world – opposing Hezbollah and Syria. This implies regime change for the Allawite Assad.

– The quid pro quo from our Sunni allies would be staunch opposition to (Sunni) Islamist radicals who would use violence to attack the West – and them.

Obama may get his permission to lob a few missiles at some Syrian military sites, accomplishing little. Married to a strategy of opposition to Iran with the correlary of working for the replacement of Assad with a moderate Sunni regime – even if it takes a couple more years – this would be a reasonable strategy. That Obama has promised military equipment to moderate rebels after the first gas attack without following through suggests that regime change has not been part of the strategy; maybe the decision to have the Pentagon rather than the CIA provide the arms suggests more than a tactical change. If so, it would be a nice gesture to tell Congress and the American people.


For those few who are surprised by Obama’s dithering on Syria, here’s an update on the XL Pipeline, a project first proposed in 2008, whose approval or rejection is now projected to be delayed until at least the end of the year for the review of millions of pages of public testimony. Meanwhile, transportation has shifted to rail – which is more expensive and less invironmentally friendly.

www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 9/6/2013