Andrew Bacevich: The Hill to the Rescue on Syria? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  He is the author of the new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (Metropolitan Books). Originally published at TomDispatch.

Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking.  On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines.  Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.  

In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated U.S. attack against Syria.  Obama hadn’t, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the U.S. would “go it alone” in punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its bad behavior.  Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.

Obama thereby brought to a screeching halt a process extending back over six decades in which successive inhabitants of the Oval Office had arrogated to themselves (or had thrust upon them) ever wider prerogatives in deciding when and against whom the United States should wage war.  Here was one point on which every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush had agreed: on matters related to national security, the authority of the commander-in-chief has no fixed limits.  When it comes to keeping the country safe and securing its vital interests, presidents can do pretty much whatever they see fit.

Here, by no means incidentally, lies the ultimate the source of the stature and prestige that defines the imperial presidency and thereby shapes (or distorts) the American political system.  Sure, the quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are classy, but what really endowed the postwar war presidency with its singular aura were the missiles, bombers, and carrier battle groups that responded to the commands of one man alone.  What’s the bully pulpit in comparison to having the 82nd Airborne and SEAL Team Six at your beck and call?

Now, in effect, Obama was saying to Congress: I’m keen to launch a war of choice.  But first I want you guys to okay it.  In politics, where voluntarily forfeiting power is an unnatural act, Obama’s invitation qualifies as beyond unusual.  Whatever the calculations behind his move, its effect rates somewhere between unprecedented and positively bizarre — the heir to imperial prerogatives acting, well, decidedly unimperial.

Obama is a constitutional lawyer, of course, and it’s pleasant to imagine that he acted out of due regard for what Article 1, Section 8, of that document plainly states, namely that “the Congress shall have power…  to declare war.”  Take his explanation at face value and the president’s decision ought to earn plaudits from strict constructionists across the land.  The Federalist Society should offer Obama an honorary lifetime membership.

Of course, seasoned political observers, understandably steeped in cynicism, dismissed the president’s professed rationale out of hand and immediately began speculating about his actual motivation.  The most popular explanation was this: having painted himself into a corner, Obama was trying to lure members of the legislative branch into joining him there.  Rather than a belated conversion experience, the president’s literal reading of the Constitution actually amounted to a sneaky political ruse.

After all, the president had gotten himself into a pickle by declaring back in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad would cross a supposedly game-changing “red line.”  When the Syrians (apparently) called his bluff, Obama found himself facing uniformly unattractive military options that ranged from the patently risky — joining forces with the militants intent on toppling Assad — to the patently pointless — firing a “shot across the bow” of the Syrian ship of state.

Meanwhile, the broader American public, awakening from its summertime snooze, was demonstrating remarkably little enthusiasm for yet another armed intervention in the Middle East.  Making matters worse still, U.S. military leaders and many members of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were expressing serious reservations or actual opposition. Press reports even cited leaks by unnamed officials who characterized the intelligence linking Assad to the chemical attacks as no “slam dunk,” a painful reminder of how bogus information had paved the way for the disastrous and unnecessary Iraq War.  For the White House, even a hint that Obama in 2013 might be replaying the Bush scenario of 2003 was anathema.

The president also discovered that recruiting allies to join him in this venture was proving a hard sell.  It wasn’t just the Arab League’s refusal to give an administration strike against Syria its seal of approval, although that was bad enough.  Jordan’s King Abdullah, America’s “closest ally in the Arab world,” publicly announced that he favored talking to Syria rather than bombing it.  As for Iraq, that previous beneficiary of American liberation, its government was refusing even to allow U.S. forces access to its airspace.  Ingrates!

For Obama, the last straw may have come when America’s most reliable (not to say subservient) European partner refused to enlist in yet another crusade to advance the cause of peace, freedom, and human rights in the Middle East.  With memories of Tony and George W. apparently eclipsing those of Winston and Franklin, the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to position the United Kingdom alongside the United States.  Parliament’s vote dashed Obama’s hopes of forging a coalition of two and so investing a war of choice against Syria with at least a modicum of legitimacy.

When it comes to actual military action, only France still entertains the possibility of making common cause with the United States.  Yet the number of Americans taking assurance from this prospect approximates the number who know that Bernard-Henri Lévy isn’t a celebrity chef.

John F. Kennedy once remarked that defeat is an orphan.  Here was a war bereft of parents even before it had begun. 

Whether or Not to Approve the War for the Greater Middle East

Still, whether high-minded constitutional considerations or diabolically clever political machinations motivated the president may matter less than what happens next.  Obama lobbed the ball into Congress’s end of the court.  What remains to be seen is how the House and the Senate, just now coming back into session, will respond. 

At least two possibilities exist, one with implications that could prove profound and the second holding the promise of being vastly entertaining.

On the one hand, Obama has implicitly opened the door for a Great Debate regarding the trajectory of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Although a week or ten days from now the Senate and House of Representatives will likely be voting to approve or reject some version of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), at stake is much more than the question of what to do about Syria.  The real issue — Americans should hope that the forthcoming congressional debate makes this explicit — concerns the advisability of continuing to rely on military might as the preferred means of advancing U.S. interests in this part of the world.

Appreciating the actual stakes requires putting the present crisis in a broader context.  Herewith an abbreviated history lesson.

Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would employ any means necessary to prevent a hostile power from gaining control of the Persian Gulf.  In retrospect, it’s clear enough that the promulgation of the so-called Carter Doctrine amounted to a de facto presidential “declaration” of war (even if Carter himself did not consciously intend to commit the United States to perpetual armed conflict in the region).  Certainly, what followed was a never-ending sequence of wars and war-like episodes.  Although the Congress never formally endorsed Carter’s declaration, it tacitly acceded to all that his commitment subsequently entailed.

Relatively modest in its initial formulation, the Carter Doctrine quickly metastasized.  Geographically, it grew far beyond the bounds of the Persian Gulf, eventually encompassing virtually all of the Islamic world.  Washington’s own ambitions in the region also soared.  Rather than merely preventing a hostile power from achieving dominance in the Gulf, the United States was soon seeking to achieve dominance itself.  Dominance — that is, shaping the course of events to Washington’s liking — was said to hold the key to maintaining stability, ensuring access to the world’s most important energy reserves, checking the spread of Islamic radicalism, combating terrorism, fostering Israel’s security, and promoting American values.  Through the adroit use of military might, dominance actually seemed plausible.  (So at least Washington persuaded itself.)

What this meant in practice was the wholesale militarization of U.S. policy toward the Greater Middle East in a period in which Washington’s infatuation with military power was reaching its zenith.  As the Cold War wound down, the national security apparatus shifted its focus from defending Germany’s Fulda Gap to projecting military power throughout the Islamic world.  In practical terms, this shift found expression in the creation of Central Command (CENTCOM), reconfigured forces, and an eternal round of contingency planning, war plans, and military exercises in the region.  To lay the basis for the actual commitment of troops, the Pentagon established military bases, stockpiled material in forward locations, and negotiated transit rights.  It also courted and armed proxies.  In essence, the Carter Doctrine provided the Pentagon (along with various U.S. intelligence agencies) with a rationale for honing and then exercising new capabilities.

Capabilities expanded the range of policy options.  Options offered opportunities to “do something” in response to crisis.  From the Reagan era on, policymakers seized upon those opportunities with alacrity.  A seemingly endless series of episodes and incidents ensued, as U.S. forces, covert operatives, or proxies engaged in hostile actions (often on multiple occasions) in Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, the southern Philippines, and in the Persian Gulf itself, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan.  Consider them altogether and what you have is a War for the Greater Middle East, pursued by the United States for over three decades now.  If Congress gives President Obama the green light, Syria will become the latest front in this ongoing enterprise.

Profiles in Courage? If Only

A debate over the Syrian AUMF should encourage members of Congress — if they’ve got the guts — to survey this entire record of U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East going back to 1980.  To do so means almost unavoidably confronting this simple question: How are we doing?  To state the matter directly, all these years later, given all the ordnance expended, all the toing-and-froing of U.S. forces, and all the lives lost or shattered along the way, is mission accomplishment anywhere insight?  Or have U.S. troops — the objects of such putative love and admiration on the part of the American people — been engaged over the past 30-plus years in a fool’s errand?  How members cast their votes on the Syrian AUMF will signal their answer — and by extension the nation’s answer — to that question.

To okay an attack on Syria will, in effect, reaffirm the Carter Doctrine and put a stamp of congressional approval on the policies that got us where we are today.  A majority vote in favor of the Syrian AUMF will sustain and probably deepen Washington’s insistence that the resort to violence represents the best way to advance U.S. interests in the Islamic world.  From this perspective, all we need to do is try harder and eventually we’ll achieve a favorable outcome.  With Syria presumably the elusive but never quite attained turning point, the Greater Middle East will stabilize.  Democracy will flourish.  And the United States will bask in the appreciation of those we have freed from tyranny.

To vote against the AUMF, on the other hand, will draw a red line of much greater significance than the one that President Obama himself so casually laid down.  Should the majority in either House reject the Syrian AUMF, the vote will call into question the continued viability of the Carter Doctrine and all that followed in its wake. 

It will create space to ask whether having another go is likely to produce an outcome any different from what the United States has achieved in the myriad places throughout the Greater Middle East where U.S. forces (or covert operatives) have, whatever their intentions, spent the past several decades wreaking havoc and sowing chaos under the guise of doing good.  Instead of offering more of the same – does anyone seriously think that ousting Assad will transform Syria into an Arab Switzerland? — rejecting the AUMF might even invite the possibility of charting an altogether different course, entailing perhaps a lower military profile and greater self-restraint.

What a stirring prospect!  Imagine members of Congress setting aside partisan concerns to debate first-order questions of policy.  Imagine them putting the interests of the country in front of their own worries about winning reelection or pursuing their political ambitions.  It would be like Lincoln vs. Douglas or Woodrow Wilson vs. Henry Cabot Lodge.  Call Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Call Spielberg or Sorkin.  Get me Capra, for God’s sake.  We’re talking high drama of blockbuster proportions.

On the other hand, given the record of the recent past, we should hardly discount the possibility that our legislative representatives will not rise to the occasion.  Invited by President Obama to share in the responsibility for deciding whether and where to commit acts of war, one or both Houses — not known these days for displaying either courage or responsibility — may choose instead to punt. 

As we have learned by now, the possible ways for Congress to shirk its duty are legion.  In this instance, all are likely to begin with the common supposition that nothing’s at stake here except responding to Assad’s alleged misdeeds.  To refuse to place the Syrian crisis in any larger context is, of course, a dodge.  Yet that dodge creates multiple opportunities for our elected representatives to let themselves off the hook.

Congress could, for example, pass a narrowly drawn resolution authorizing Obama to fire his “shot across the bow” and no more.  In other words, it could basically endorse the president’s inclination to substitute gesture for policy.

Or it could approve a broadly drawn, but vacuous resolution, handing the president a blank check.  Ample precedent exists for that approach, since it more or less describes what Congress did in 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, opening the way to presidential escalation in Vietnam, or with the AUMF it passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, giving George W. Bush’s administration permission to do more or less anything it wanted to just about anyone.

Even more irresponsibly, Congress could simply reject any Syrian AUMF, however worded, without identifying a plausible alternative to war, in effect washing its hands of the matter and creating a policy vacuum.

Will members of the Senate and the House grasp the opportunity to undertake an urgently needed reassessment of America’s War for the Greater Middle East?  Or wriggling and squirming, will they inelegantly sidestep the issue, opting for short-term expediency in place of serious governance?  In an age where the numbing blather of McCain, McConnell, and Reid have replaced the oratory of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, merely to pose the question is to answer it.

But let us not overlook the entertainment value of such an outcome, which could well be formidable.  In all likelihood, high comedy Washington-style lurks just around the corner.  So renew that subscription to The Onion.  Keep an eye on Doonesbury.  Set the TiVo to record Jon Stewart.  This is going to be really funny — and utterly pathetic.  Where’s H.L. Mencken when we need him?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Gerard Pierce

    So far, so good! Obama probably hasn’t got the guts to go against the Russian without some actual evidence.

    Now all we have to worry about is the false-flag attack that makes it absolutely imperitive that we go to war.

  2. Hugh

    Bacevich goes a long way round before answering his own question, that Congress will sidestep a real debate on Middle East policy, the preferential use of force, and I might add the War on Terror. Congress, specifically the House, is responding not to any great ideas or moral concerns but to Obama’s increasing lameduckedness and the very real anger of their usually forgotten constituents.

    For the rest, Congress is fine with the empire and the War on Terror. They have no real problem with Obama usurping their powers. Sure, they will feel free to criticize him for anything less than a stellar victory, and we all know there won’t be one of those, but I expect they are principally miffed that Obama tried to hang any responsibility on them for a decision he has already made.

    Bacevich has skin in this game since he lost his son in one of the episodes of the 30 year war for the Middle East he is describing, but he is also an Establishment conservative, and like his liberal counterparts, he continues to look toward his class and traditional institutions for his answers. He is still in the place where they are acting badly, but could act well. He does not accept that they are totally corrupt and illegitimate. That remains a bridge too far for him.

    1. from Mexico

      Bacevich is without a doubt a conservative, a Realist conservative. This, however, is very different from being a neoconservative. Neoconservatives, far from being realists, are idealists who believe that, with sufficient violence, coercion and propaganda, they can transform the world to make it fit their Utopian vision.

      I think it’s important to keep what Duncan Bell said in mind:

      Many conservatives have indeed been realists, and it is certainly arguable that a coherent conservatism demands adherence to some form of realism. This is one of the reasons why the ‘neoconservatives’ look so strange from a traditional conservative perspective.57 But it does not follow that all realists are conservative; realism — especially as disposition — is compatible with manifold political and ethical orientations.

      1. Paul W

        There’s nothing conservative about them. We’ve got one up here. Doesn’t matter if it’s Bush, Blair or Harper, they’re all christian fundamentalist wackos who usurp the Conservative label because it’s an electable brand name(in Blair’s case New Labour – whatever that is?). In Canada, the leader of the Reform Party became the leader of the Conservative Party. Does the english language not matter any longer? Bizzaro world here we are!

    2. Expat

      My thoughts as well. The entertainment value, such as it is, is founded on that corruption of which you speak. And it is the White House that is the key player in this “will he/won’t he” soap opera. There is nothing noble about Obama’s sudden discovery of the Constitution in this instance; like every other action of his, it is designed to avoid blame. He has been after the Congress for some days now trying to impress them that they will be blamed if they don’t go along with conventional wisdom vis-a-vis Syria. His sudden discovery that the Constitution has a blame-shifting provision built right in (something Congress discovered decades ago) is high comedy and more than a little sad.

  3. weinerdog43

    I beg to differ with professor Bacevich’s point that if Congress simply rejects any Syrian AUMF it will have acted ‘even more irresponsibly’. Given that American public opinion is running something 50-1 against ANY involvement, I would argue that a complete rejection is far better than a narrowly drawn resolution.

    I would argue that ANYTHING that derails our rush to war is a huge victory. Mr. Obama needs to learn that his credibility is essentially zero. Conservatives hate him, but his repeated lies and evasions about everything from Social Security to Single Payor have caused most Liberals (excepting the O-bots) to say enough as well.

    Too bad Obama. You had such enormous promise.

  4. Paul W

    Saw Mr.Bacevich being interviewed by Phil Donahue yesterday. Very impressive. Made up for McLaughlin Group giving Pat Buchanan’s seat to Jewish Taliban supporter Mort Zuckerman. Didn’t last 5 minutes watching that episode.

    If Obama was smart, he would have used Congress for his Cameron moment and a way out of this mess. But when the regime says they can ignore a NO vote, it’s clear they’re too stupid to want to get out.

    Obama is going to need a second false flag this week as he’s never going to carry the House without it. Expect a small bomb going off in a US city and being blamed on Syria. Then count on the action President to fire off the first shot before Congress votes on anything. It’s crucial the president not lose face. No limit to the number of lives that can be sacrificed to protect the reputation of a member of the 1%.

    1. hunkerdown

      There may be no limit to the number of lives that *could* be, but the value of prestige is the masses who bow to it, and killing off the masses doesn’t really help if it doesn’t actually change the masses’ attitude toward who ordered the genocide. There is a point of diminishing returns, thank heavens.

  5. Malmo

    The Hill to the rescue? If they don’t vote at all then it’s a backhanded rescue I guess.

    Saw this at DM this morning:

    “A House of Representatives committee is likely to debate the same measure this week, but may not hold a vote at all if a majority of the dominant Republicans decline to support the measure

    1. GusFarmer

      Not holding a vote at all would be total abrogation of their responsibility to do their jobs and would warrant their impeachment as well. For some at least, I suspect doing that would probably be their way of secretly SUPPORTING a war without having to go on record as doing so — They can claim “Obama did it without our OK.”

  6. TC

    Will members of the Senate and the House grasp the opportunity to undertake an urgently needed reassessment of America’s War for the Greater Middle East?

    No, the real question is whether Congress will finally pick up the task that got Kennedy whacked. Will they reign in the intelligence arm of the deep state whose sponsorship of bearded cannibals in Syria has brought the latest atrocity wherein children of Latakia were kidnapped, then murdered, in order to help with the heart rendering video productions Secretary of State Skull & Bones has been claiming “evidence” of the SAA’s “guilt” in the 8/21/13 Ghouta incident.

    Odds are a ruling class that can be convinced mere kerosene can take down the tallest building in NYC will cower. That’s the issue. That’s the matter whose refusal to publicly air assures these children of Latakia will have their American counterparts (indeed, they already have had them in Newtown, CT, where the Lanza lemon simply is too rotten to make lemonade that can be consumed by anyone who isn’t a coward). Articles like this serving to obscure this most urgent matter of truth’s pursuit only serve to placate a bunch of spineless jellyfish so utterly vain in their presumed “strength” to ignore dire warnings issued from a formidable nuclear-armed foe in this conflict over Syria, the likes of whom already has called Secretary of State Skull & Bones a LIAR, publicly accusing him of propping up the very insane fundamentalists this nation already has spent trillions of dollars supposedly irradicating in its so-called “war on terror.”

    Impeach Kerry.

    Impeach Susan Rice.

    Impeach Samantha Power.

    Not one more dime, not one more bullet, not one more YouTube video in support of this so-called “Syrian opposition” whose lack of “a decent respect for the opinions of man” is so profound as to butcher women and children while Ivy League jellyfish carry on in fantasy pretending their own in Congress are even remotely relevant. Little wonder from a crew who imagines the Federal Reserve anything BUT hopelessly insolvent.

    1. petridish

      +1 Million, everyone should read your link.

      From the link:

      “The chairman of the British Intelligence Committee, Jon Day, assures that the Syrian Arab army is not at its first attempt and has used gas 14 times since 2012 [4] that is to say as many cases as reports of the use of chemical weapons by the United States during the Second Gulf War.”

      Finally a reference, however obscure, of the depleted uranium and white phosphorus used by the virtuous and moral United States. The effects of THESE chemical weapons will be felt by children not even born yet, and not only in Iraq. The returning American soldiers will pass the genetic abnormalities caused by exposure to these CHEMICAL WEAPONS on to their own children, American children.

      And I also can’t get the picture of Officer Pike going down the line of PEACEFUL Occupy protesters at UC Davis spraying each one in the face with pepper spray:

      But it is MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE to use chemical weapons “on your own people.”

  7. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

    The rebels fighting the Assad regime film their own war-videos and upload them to Youtube. One brigade, an islamic brigade, is forever shouting: Allahu akbar! Some fighting by the rebels has happened around Jora, close to Damascus. It’s as plain as day that the pro-Assad and the anti-Assad forces are mortal enemies. I fully agree that nerve gas attacks are horrible. Moreover, now, after watching up to 50 minutes of youtube videos likely made by the anti-Assad forces, I’ve seen more than enough; it sure looks real, what with sounds of shots, military planes flying overhead, the sights of tanks, neigborhoods in ruins and flies around cadavers. I believe the experts/pundits who say it probably won’t end soon.

    1. Synopticist

      ALL the rebel brigades are forever shouting allah akbar. Every single one of them, all the time. You can easilly tell if a video is made by regime forces, because there are no allah ackbars in it.

      Which is as good a proof as you need, to know there is no non-sectarian armed opposition to Assad.

  8. Paul Tioxon

    I agree with Mr Bacevich on the unusual presidential move to actually announce a request to form a coalition with the US Congress. Deferring to the war making power of Congress and not continuing in the well worn path of the Unitary Executive while not yet a historic change in direction, IS new in proposing it all. From Hiroshima to the oil rich Middle East, the public and its voice in Congress has been left out of participating in the formation of policy. The usual so called hard decisions that must be made are relegated to the high minded leadership, leaving the public out, due to not being forged in the crucible of leadership making experiences that only leadership itself bestows!

    The public has no security clearance to read the above top secret intel. Nor do we have strong backs for the heavy lift. Oh for the days when we were the ignorant masses, the great unwashed, destroyed by demon alcohol and the way of all flesh. Surely then, we were not worthy of such awesome responsibilities. Today, we are dismissed as Nascar Dad and Soccer Mom, too preoccupied in leisure diversions and bourgeoisie accumulation. The contempt for us as being irrelevant after thoughts, at best, was not always the case. We were once invited into Participatory Hegemony when JFK challenged us to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”! At least then we were invited into the global enterprise that President Kennedy opened with in his stirring inaugural speech.

    “….. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
    Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
    This much we pledge—and more.”

    We no longer are willing to pay any price, we will not bear any burden, we no longer want any hardship: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

    Since The Carter Doctrine, created in the aftermath of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74 has lost its has raison d’etre, you have to wonder just what’s in for us? Nothing but death and debt. We have restructured our oil importation today where most of the crude we need above domestic sources comes from our most easily accessible neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Venezuela and Nigeria as well as Saudi Arabia filling in the rest. It is clear with the displacement of coal with natural gas currently happening that we are no longer constrained by the geo-politics of Middle East oil for our survival.

    The psychologizing and chess board decoding of Obama’s behavior in this entire affair is the entertainment and content for many. But the chance of bending the will of DC towards walking away from a fight, even this pip squeak earnest intent of a message of still standing hegemony, is more important than figuring out the why and the wherefore. If Obama is dragging his feet, and Congress does not go along with him, it may well end up with capitualation to real politik. That there is nothing to be done in the Middle East, in this instance in Syria, that we can have any say. We are out of Iraq, we are within months of the complete evacuation of all personnel from Afghanistan, and now, we need to leave some small sign of real intent to do whatever is necessary to defend our national interests in a part of the world where we have completely failed in military objectives. In the oil rich part of the world that is so unstable, that we no longer rely on it for our oil importation. So, what possible intangible national interest is left for us to uphold? International Law, norms of military conflict? The 21st Century world of CyberWar can kill as many people as chemical warfare from the 19th Century technologies.

    The new norms of warfare can cripple our electrical grid or water supply. Infrastructure attacks via the internet is a more terrifying prospect, but it is not outlawed. It is more terrifying because the vast urbanization of the global population has concentrated humanity by the billions in cities composed of 10s of millions utterly reliant on infrastructure to survive.

    So what argument does the president have left at his disposal that is not being shredded daily on cable TV, much less the even more realistic debunking by a Bacevich? Letting bad actors know that there is some behavior that is beyond the pale and will result in a military response, even if a token, almost symbolic gesture at best? And what is the purpose of that earnest intent? Simply that. To let the world know that even though we have the largest military force on the planet, capable of projecting its force anywhere in the world at anytime, we can still use it at will if we don’t like what you’re doing. That is the simple message of a hegemon falling back on its last line of defense as a hegemon. Of course, when this phase has been reached, are we really a hegemon? If only brute force is what we bring to the table, we no longer provide the primary benefit of a hegemon, order. The chaos is upon us. Climate change driving droughts in the Middle East, causing mass farm failure and migration into cities creates unmanageable social upheavals beyond our control.

    In the long conflict of humanity vs nature, nature is launching a massive counter offensive and the price, the burden and hardship is beyond our command. Fire your missiles Mr President, no one believes that they can stop an ugly civil war or prevent the next one. Not when the insanity is not by our choice. If it was a choice of the people of Syria, you would think that living next door to Iraq, and seeing what the US military can do, and has done for 2 decades, would be enough to persuade anyone, even Assad of heading on a collision course with the US Government. Compared to the devastation of that nation, what is a few bombs. We have done worse.

  9. charm school

    Right, congress is irrelevant just like our civilian puppet ruler is irrelevant. It falls to the outside world to get the US war apparat under control. That said, Grayson’s trick of amending stupid bills with law could help.

    UN Charter Article 47 is the law, but obscuring that fact has been the linchpin of US foreign policy for 50 years. Stick it into the AUMF. Every administration has worked to deprive the UNSC of capacity commensurate with its authority. The P-5 are the most effective brake on the obsessive-compulsive dimbulbs of A Ring. The military can’t misbehave as much in a diplomatic fishbowl.

    The military knows jus cogens only as a creative-writing exercise where you pull some absurd word salad out your ass to justify your war. Acculturate them, let the grown-ups show them how it’s done. You’ll soon have more Wilkersons and fewer ass-kissing criminal cowards like Alexander.

  10. Susan the other

    By all means, let’s reassess Carter’s declaration of war on the Middle East. We still import vast amounts of oil. Let’s stop. Cut back on our use of hydrocarbons altogether. The most devastating war on the Middle East will be an end to their oil empire. All the perverted economics which create and support the Middle East dictators will disappear. We could embargo the entire area. Nothing in or out. China can get all the oil they want from the former SU. And the age of oil is coming to an end anyway.

  11. Generalfeldmarschall Von Hindenburg

    I think Putin is right; whatever the unsavory qualities of the Syrian government, the US leadership is lying six ways to Sunday about this “gas attack”. The approved narrative has all the marks of standard US psyops going back to the Indian massacres in the 19th century

  12. Jackrabbit

    I think there’s three main possibilities from Obama’s motivation to go to Congress:

    1) As discussed by Bacevich (and the MSM): Obama really wants to go to war but he is forced to seek legitimacy by going to Congress for approval of even a small, very limited attack to punish Syria (slap on the wrist, really) because the UK and others rejected an attack and Russia and China will use their veto in the UN to support their ‘client state’.

    2) Obama doesn’t really want to shoulder the risks entailed in attacking Syria but he wants to project strong support for the rebels so he punted to Congress knowing that Congress would vote down the measure.

    This approach is a “win” as Obama looks like he cares about the Constitution and babies. This approach is reminiscent of:

    * dodging a political bullet after Congress’ voice-vote approval of the mortgage/MERS ‘fix’
    * his faux tears after the tragic shooting in Connecticut.

    Despite the (expected!) set back, he wins PR points while leaving open the option to strike at some future date.

    3) Obama wants Congressional approval because he foresees the possibility of a wider war. Once shooting starts, Congress is likely to approve any increased scope or extension that the President wants. But if we an attack sparks a full-scale war then Obama and neo-cons in the Executive Branch will get blamed unless Congress approved the initial attack.

    This approach is very neolib and very Obama: another big con and mind f*ck: _your_ representatives approved this!

    In this case, it seems likely that he would attack after Senate (only) approval since the House is more likely to vote against an attack.


    I discount door #1 because its what they want us to believe. And I’d guess is that door #2 is more likely than door #3.

    To me, the ‘tell’ is Cameron’s decision to accept Parliament’s decision and the NYTimes frontpage pic of rebels executing captives. But I think we will not know for sure until/unless the Senate approves a strike (attack or wait for the House?).

    Whatever his motivation for going to Congress, it’s clear that failed economic policy along with Obama’s many scandals and his glib mendacity has drasticly weakened the Presidency. Trying to change the subject to jobs failed miserably but acting tough on the world stage helps to restore some Presidential luster.

    For Obama, I see the Syrian War as akin to ‘financial reform’ in his first term. He was much more interested in reforming healthcare and left financial reform to his sponsors and the industry ‘experts’ that they approved of. In his second term, I think he is much more interested in using his dwindling political capital for TPP, tar sands pipeline, and other such matters and not so interested in a high-risk Syrian power play. But if neo-cons and MIC push hard for a strike, Obama would stand up to them?

  13. Synopticist

    I don’t really think Obama wants this war, any more than the military does. Lots of people around him, the CIA, the Israeli and Saudi lobbies, the MIC, etc etc obviously do, but I reckon he doesn’t.
    David Cameron desperately wanted it, and repeatedly badgered him about it, then left Obama in the lurch when he couldn’t fulfill his part of the bargain. He must hate the sight of that f*cker.

    He’s looking for a way out without doing terminal damage to his prestige, and taking it to congress is the smartest solution. Either they say yes, and they share the ignominy, or they say no, and he gets to make a folksy speech about the importance of public backing and how he was elected to end wars not start them.

    This way, if no strikes result, Kerry takes most of the reputational hit. He’s the one going around banging the drum and lying about al qaeda’s influence, not Obama.

    I don’t rate Obama’s political skill at all highly, but this move is actually quite clever. It gets him out of a problem partly of his own making, and there are a few upsides.

  14. Doug Terpstra

    The enormous mastodon s-itting on the WH oval office rug is conspicuously absent from this otherwise learned, high-brow analysis of ME policy. Any discussion of US’ ME policy that does not acknowledge the obvious Israeli tail wagging the US dog is pointless at best, but from someone who should know better, it looks more like deliberate obfuscation.

    1. Fiver

      Bingo! Recently Bacevich argued that US “strategic planners” in the military and on the civilian side had, over a period of decades, by the osmosis of constant close contact and exchanges at all levels, simply absorbed the clearly insane “strategic views” of its Israeli partners vis a vis the “Greater Middle East” wherein Israel, after the US degrades all Arab or Muslim potential to govern their States, reigns over the are in a triad of US/Israeli and Saudi power.

      Look at the Saudis have achieved so far – 2 of 3 oil-rich competitors are prostrate on the ground, and the third (Iran) is next in line. Goes some distance as well in explaining Canada’s out-of-character posture, as the current Canadian Government’s base is in tar sands country.

      And of course, it ignores the fact that Israel has its Lobby and other organs mounting a full-court press for war. If only Obama was capable of a truly gutsy move – he could expose both the Saudi and Israeli roles in this, and finally put those 2 rancid regimes on notice.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        This makes the case Obama knows this or cares. Obama is concerned with Obama. The only real hope for the Obama Presidency was that people would hold his feet to the fire because he would be the narcissist he is. Even now, his excuse for the Russians embarrassing him is to say its all part of 11th dimensional chess.

  15. Seal

    The US and its “professional” military has failed to prevail in all 4 major conflicts since WW 2:
    Viet Nam

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