President Barack Obama speaks at a G-20 Summit press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Obama says he would not launch military strikes against Syria if the government of that country were to turn over its chemical weapons to foreign minders—as Russia has proposed.
But the skeptical president—who suggests that he takes the Russian offer “with a grain of salt” —still wants the authority to launch those strikes.
So, even as the prospect for a non-military fix has been raised, Obama will keep lobbying a skeptical Congress for the approval of a military fix. Though the president refuses to rule out the prospect that he might launch strikes without congressional approval, he says, “I am taking this vote in Congress and what the American people are saying very seriously.”
Obama should take the congressional votes seriously.
He should not consider launching the strikes without affirmative signals from both the House and the Senate.
But he should also consider the debate that will anticipate those congressional votes—and the alternatives that will be proposed.
This president needs alternatives.
And Congress should provide them.
The president’s proposal to launch strikes against Syrian government targets, in response to reports of chemical weapons attacks, faces overwhelming opposition from the American people—59 percent in the latest CNN survey—and deep skepticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Beginning with a series of television interviews Monday evening, the president will be using the bully pulpit to make his case. And he’ll get a good measure of media buy-in in coming days. There will even be suggestions that the threat of military action is working—and that it must be codified.
But the prospect that the president will achieve a full momentum shift on this issue, and get the Congressional authorization for the use of force that he seeks, remains uncertain. Even Obama admits: “I wouldn’t say I’m confident” about the congressional votes.
But, even if he loses, the president could gain options in the process.
The concept of a system of checks and balances, as outlined by the founders of the American experiment, relies on the notion that president’s must seek the “advice and consent” of Congress on vital issues. In the contentious politics of our moment, too little attention is paid to the “advice” part of that equation. But Congress can and should offer the president and his aides an alternative to a military intervention that has stirred deep skepticism.
That’s the thinking of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who argues: “We must recognize that we do have alternatives to the use of force and we should be vigorously pursuing them.”
Lee is the California Democrat who, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, cast the sole vote against the broad authorization of the use of force sought by then-President George W. Bush. Lee argued a dozen years ago that Congress needed to have more of a hand in defining the direction of what would become a global “war on terror,” and in promoting diplomatic responses to challenges facing the United States.
Today, Lee continues to work to renew the role of Congress in foreign policy. Several weeks ago, she authored a key letter urging President Obama to ask Congress for authorization to use force against Syria. That letter drew the signatures of sixty Democratic members of the House—many of them, like Lee, long-term backers of the president. There is little question that the Lee letter played a role in influencing the president to go to Congress on the issue.
I write to urge your support for my proposal which lays out non-military options the United States can pursue, in partnership with the international community, that is consistent with law and would hold perpetrators accountable for heinous crimes against humanity.
While I believe the Assad regime must be held accountable, I reject that it has to mean a military response to be effective. There is no military solution to this complex civil war, and while a negotiated settlement is necessary, I do not believe military action will further that goal.
Instead of pursuing military force, United States policy should focus on working with the United Nations and the international community on an enhanced diplomatic strategy to facilitate a negotiated political settlement and hold the Assad regime, and all responsible parties, accountable for human rights violations. My Resolution lays out options such as:
1. requiring the Government of Syria to allow unfettered access to humanitarian organizations;
2. pressuring all internal and external parties to participate urgently and constructively in the Geneva process and other negotiations and regional arrangements with the League of Arab States and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation;
3. seeking to strengthen and coordinate multilateral sanctions targeted against the assets of Assad;
4. investigating and prosecuting crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law, including appropriately-timed International Criminal Court referral;
5. working with member states of the Chemical Weapons Convention;
6. working with the international community to establish a Syrian war crimes tribunal; and
7. enabling United States courts to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law committed in Syria.
We must recognize that we do have alternatives to the use of force and we should be vigorously pursuing them. I urge you in joining me to support non-military means to hold the perpetrators accountable and bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Lee is hardly alone in offering advice on the wisdom of a diplomatic response, as opposed to military strikes. A new ad campaign from Progressive Democrats of America says: "Forceful diplomacy is the alternative to force without a diplomatic solution." And members of the House and Senate are making the same point.
Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, said after being briefed by White House aides: “I am still not convinced that there is a compelling national security interest that necessitates a military response, solely or largely borne by the United States. We need to engage the international community to find the appropriate response to the use of chemical weapons, and to do so will require a much broader discussion with all proper options given full consideration. The use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, but this is an issue that is best addressed by the international community.”
Pocan represents the Wisconsin district previously served by Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who last year was elected to the US Senate. Baldwin has yet to say whether she will vote for or against the resolution itself says she thinks that Senate amendments might play a significant role in the process. While two senators—West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp—are proposing an amendment that might delay US action, Baldwin is particularly interested in assuring that the international community is brought into the mix. “The use of chemical weapons is a global atrocity and demands a global response,” she says. “The various treaties and conventions addressing these issues have been ratified by most of the world’s nations. Devising a precedent-setting response to their violation demands that the world’s nations engage in this discussion.”
New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continues to say that he is “very disappointed that the administration has given up” on working with the United Nations. The United States should be “rallying the world” to respond to developments in Syria, says Udall, whose father (former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall) served in the administration of Lyndon Johnson when an ever-expanding military involvement in Vietnam undermined the president’s ambitious domestic agenda.
Bitter experiment has informed the American people, argues Udall, who suggests that President Obama “is moving much too rapidly down the war path and not trying to find a political solution.”
Americans, the senator says, “don’t want to be embroiled in a Middle Eastern civil war; this is an act of war that we’re going to take. We haven’t exhausted all of our political, economic, and diplomatic alternatives.”
Udall, a savvy former prosecutor with broad experience in Washington, says President Obama “is moving much too rapidly down the war path and not trying to find a political solution.”
Congressman James McGovern, D-Massachusetts, recognizes the dynamic. “Look, I’m a big supporter of Barack Obama,” says McGovern. “But sometimes friends can disagree.”
McGovern is concerned that White House insiders suffer from an “inability to think outside the box.”
Congress should help them with that.
Read John Nichols on Obama's decision to seek congressional approval for Syrian strike.