If you add just a negation sign to this Walter Russell Mead post, you get my view. Except for the bit where he says that the plans for war seem pretty screwed up. Everyone agrees about that.
Wouldn’t it be great if we set a precedent? Wouldn’t the Republic be healthier for it having happened – just once?
President proposes military action. Congress votes against. It doesn’t happen.
Once it happens once, it’s more likely to happen again, after all.
But won’t this destroy Obama’s status and credibility and all that good stuff?
There was a vote. Obama lost to a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats. So no bombs fell. Now what?
There’s a couple different ways to think about this, in Realpolitik and Idealpolitik mode. Realistically: Obama is a lame duck. There is no downside for him, personally, electorally. There is no serious damage to his agenda for the remainder of his term. If Syria is not bombed, it does not create a risk that Obamacare will be rolled back, for example. Will this embolden Republicans to oppose him? They’ve already turned that dial up to 11. What are they going to do? Impeach him for not bombing Syria, after they failed to support him in bombing Syria? Are they going to campaign against Democrats, in 2014 and 2016, on the need to have done this thing they themselves substantially opposed, and that seemed unpopular with the public? Are they going to argue that Obama is a dirty hippy for listening to them, when they squealed like a stuck peacenik? The fact that Obama listened to Congress proves what they’ve always said. He’s a fanatic! He won’t compromise or listen to the other side! Exactly how is not bombing Syria going to shape up as some albatross around a Democratic neck? On the other hand, given the high likelihood that the Syria situation does not come to a swift, happy conclusion, what are the odds that bombing Syria does not become the exclusive fault of Democrats, in 2014 and – who knows? – 2016?
From an Idealpolitik point of view: the good of this prospective military action consists solely in our upholding international norms against chemical weapons use. There is no other realistic goal here. But a go-it-alone Obama does nothing to shore up international norms. Not really. By contrast, an Obama who bows to a negative vote by Congress actually does something that is precedent-setting, in a positive way.
Back to Walter Russell Mead:
President Obama could not be more wrong. It is precisely the President’s credibility as a spokesman for the “international community” (whatever that is) and for US foreign policy that is glaringly and horribly on the line. An effective leader would have consulted with key people in Congress and made sure of his backing before making explicit threats of force.
If you don’t know what the international community is, you should just be against this thing. There is no way to explain what the point is if you don’t believe there’s an international community with norms against chemical weapons use.
If the point is just that the President must now paint a red line in real blood, to prove that when he said ‘red line’ he meant it, then you are just a moral monster. How not? Is Mead really in favor of making this purely a matter of personal honor?
Because all this ‘effective leader’ stuff is just nonsense. Imagine we live in a world in which it’s normal for the President to propose military something and Congress not to go along. Is this a world in which the President has no standing or credibility? In which he is hopelessly hamstrung? No. It’s a world in which the President is more limited in some ways (and maybe that’s a good thing) and yet has more options in other ways (and maybe that’s a good thing). He isn’t restricted to: bidding and then helplessly raising and raising, until he’s bet everything. He can bluff or fold, if occasion merits – with the help of Congress! Now they can do this Good Cop-Bad Cop routine! (Hasn’t Mead ever seen a cop show?) I realize that the Good Cop and Bad Cop are friends, in the show, whereas the Republicans are only willing to be Good Cops if it will wreck a Bad Cop play by Obama. But suppose – just suppose – Obama is playing 11-dimensional chess. And he’s counting on Republicans to wreck his play. Is that a bad plan, if it’s the plan?
When a cruise missile is fired, it has failed in its mission – which was to deter situations in which the use of cruise missiles is necessary. Just building one and telling everyone you have one is the basic level, deterrence-wise. The President specifically proposing to fire one at a particular target, but then backing down, does not constitute failure. It is, quite possibly, a refusal to settle for second-best (firing the damn thing) in favor of first-best.
Look at the last paragraph and just think about what the implications are:
Considered in the abstract, the planned attacks on Syria may or may not be smart. But thanks to this latest round of “smart diplomacy,” if bombs don’t fall on Syria, President Obama will have bombed his own credibility into oblivion.
Is Mead seriously suggesting that the President should potentially make a ‘dumb’ – pointless – attack on Syria, just for the sake of his credibility? Suppose Obama himself sees it this way. What would we hope a good man would do – a wise man, a statesman? Quite obviously, he should be willing to fall on his sword, credibility-wise, if that’s what it takes to prevent a dumb attack on Syria.
Obama is making a giant head-fake (I doubt it, but it could be). He’s courageously staking his credibility (something a lame duck ought to be willing to do, for the greater good) in the eyes of the world’s honor-mad Meads, for the sake of establishing a precedent that it’s ok for a President to back down if Congress is against war (that’s one win); for the sake of scaring the pants of Assad (that’s two wins); short of bombing him (that’s three wins); without giving Republicans ammunition in 2014 or 2016 (that’s four wins).
Be in favor of bombing Syria, if you must. If you really think that it will help establish an international norm against chemical weapons use. If you really think it will help bring the conflict to an end, or minimize casualties overall. If you think it will help the US win friends and influence people. But don’t miss that there are upsides to a world in which there is a precedent for Congress stopping the President from bombing somebody.