More than a week after hundreds of Syrian civilians were allegedly gassed by their own government in a suburb of the capital Damascus, it looked as if the United States were finally about to respond to the crisis in a determined and forceful manner. Five warships were deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean, stocked with dozens of cruise missiles in the event President Barack Obama ordered retaliatory strikes. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the American public and the world twice in a week, arguing for a resolute response to a savage attack that he called a “crime against conscience.”
An American attack against Syrian regime targets seemed a foregone conclusion. So much so that Syrian commanders ordered their troops to evacuate their bases and head into the dense, civilian areas of Damascus.
But almost as soon as the Obama Administration declassified its assessment of the Syrian regime’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attack, President Obama held a news conference to tell the nation he would bring the manner before the United States Congress. “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” the president said, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective.”
Although some of Obama’s senior officials were reportedly surprised by this move, Democrats and Republicans in Washington DC were grateful for the opportunity to debate an issue that they see as vitally important to America’s national security.
The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives issued a statement thanking the president for his decision to work with Congress before American armed forces are deployed to another conflict in the Middle East. Congressman Ed Royce, the chairman of the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Eliot Engel, the ranking Republican member, supported the president’s call for lawmakers to debate what America’s response to the Syrian crisis should be.
The White House, which had faced criticism from members of Congress on a Syria policy that was at times confusing, also sent out a draft authorization for the use of force to the speaker of the House, John Boehner. Any operation, according to the authorization, would be limited in scope to a specific attack against the government of Bashar Assad in order to ensure that chemical weapons are not transported or used in the war again. Yet even that narrow scope might get the support from lawmakers who are tired for using American military power to resolve conflicts thousands of miles away.
The president is likely win authorization from the Senate where his own party is in the majority. The House of Representatives, however, is a different matter. In addition to the body being controlled by Republicans, many of its members are clearly opposed to approving military intervention in conflicts that have no clear and direct bearing on the nation’s security. Twelve years of continuous warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq has taken a heavy toll on America’s military, as well as the politicians who approved those wars.
President Obama is now personally on the record endorsing a limited and pinpoint retaliatory strike, if for no other reason than to hold the Syrians accountable for flouting a near universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. Yet if the president wants his policy to succeed, he will need to make a convincing and detailed case as to why the United States once again need to shoulder the global burden of enforcing international norms.
With Congress set to resume business next week, the administration has nine more days to convince legislators, and the American public, before the Tomahawk cruise missiles start flying.
If the words coming out of the mouths of senior members of Congress are any indication, pushing through a resolution to use force will be difficult — but not impossible.