Samuel Tenenbaum and I were talking Syria this morning, and Samuel said if POTUS really, truly wants us to act in Syria, he’ll address the nation about the importance of the proposal passing Congress. If he doesn’t, if he remains in the background, he’s not sufficiently committed to it.
Later this morning, Samuel passed on an update from Politico that said, “President Barack Obama will address the American people on Syria from the White House on Tuesday, he announced Friday.” That prompted Samuel to say, “I think he is going for it !and willing to risk defeat by the whomever.”
Perhaps so. In fact, I think so, and hope so. But for a time this morning — and I had shared this suspicion with Samuel and others — I was wondering whether, by taking the extraordinary step of ask Congress to approve action in Syria, the president was playing out a very subtle gambit designed to extricate the nation from a risky situation with minimum damage to its ability to act in the world in the future.
Here’s the way that thinking went…
I’ve been reading all sorts of indications the last couple of days of the potential fallout from acting against Assad. For instance: we knew that this was very important to the Russians, but not since the Cold War have we had a Russian leader supplying the regime we’re about to strike with weapons in the present tense, and promising, mid-crisis, to continue doing so. Which Putin just did. Not in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else have we faced that sort of risky situation.
Iraq is a mess since we left (which we shouldn’t have done with a Status of Forces agreement going forward, but let’s not argue that right now), and our anticipated action in Syria is expected to further inflame passions among the Shiite majority there for Assad and against the United States. The NYT had a pretty compelling story about that yesterday.
The lede story in the WSJ this morning (“Iran plots revenge“) was about Iran’s threats to attack the U.S. embassy in Iraq and carry out other violent reprisals. Rhetoric, yes. But Iran has a lot of experience in recent years killing Americans and has no compunctions about it. So we have to assume that’s something we’d have to deal with after a Syria strike. Which is why the Navy is getting ready to defend the Strait of Hormuz from an Iranian attack that could cripple the world’s economy.
Note that this morning, the administration ordered nonessential U.S. embassy workers out of Beirut — presumably to protect them from Iran client Hezbollah. And Iraq has moved troops to the Syrian border to brace for what might happen after a U.S. strike.
An American president could not be seen to back down in the face of any of those direct and implied threats. That would be very bad for the president in question, this nation, and the world. But if he gives a compelling case that we should act (which he did last weekend), but then turns responsibility over to the famously ineffective, incompetent and dysfunctional Congress, we end up not acting — but it’s not his fault.
Thus he has (sorta, kinda, in a weak sort of way) stood up for doing the right thing — although a thing that no one expects to have much effect this late in the game — while avoiding a whole series of bad consequences from Russia, Iran, et al.
I really don’t think the president is that manipulative and subtle. So I’ve rejected this line of thinking. But it’s an intriguing one, I think…