Syria Referral to Congress Could Spark Historic Debate

By Jim Lobe

In light of Amb. Hunter’s post about the important constitutional implications of Obama’s decision to seek an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) from Congress, I wanted to make a few quick observations about the move and some of its possibilities.

1) This could set the stage for a long-overdue debate about the role of the United States in the post-Cold war, post-Iraq war world. Poll after poll has shown a great ambivalence in public opinion over whether the U.S. should act as the world’s policeman (no) and whether it should sustain its military dominance and its ability to act unilaterally if its security is threatened (yes). As Amb. Hunter pointed out, a serious debate would also address Washington’s “indispensability” and what that means, as well as whether the U.S. is willing to act, unilaterally if necessary, to uphold what it regards as “international norms.” These are huge questions that began to be debated in Congress over the Libya intervention but never captured public attention in a major way, in part because a) Obama, as commander-in-chief, never felt obliged to seriously engage in it; and b) the UN Security Council had authorized military action, thus giving it an international legitimacy which, at least at this point, action against Syria is very likely to lack. 

2) The coming debate is likely to expose and exacerbate deepening fissures in the Republican Party over Washington’s role in the world. With the exception of Ron Paul and John Huntsman, all of the Republican primary candidates in the 2012 election ran on what might be called a neoconservative/aggressive-nationalist foreign-policy platform that today is best embodied by Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, the mainstream media’s go-to Republican foreign-policy spokesmen. It’s significant that in a statement issued shortly after Obama’s announcement today, the duo suggested they could not support “isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict…” By taking such a position, they clearly invite opposition from a pretty broad range of their fellow-Republican lawmakers (especially in the House) associated with the non-interventionist (some would say neo-isolationist) positions associated with Ron Paul, and the realist stance represented by someone like Sen. Bob Corker, as well as fiscal conservatives associated with the Tea Party. (Not that these three groups are entirely discrete factions.) The debate could really turn into a battle royal among the Republicans over who speaks for the party when it comes to foreign policy.

3) Similarly, Democrats are likely have a difficult time bringing their ranks into line. Many of them will be torn between their loyalty to Obama and the White House (and their historic fear of being called soft on the enemy of the day) on the one hand, and anti-war forces on the other. The latter have time to mobilize their troops against military action in a major way and, in any event, play a much stronger role in the party at the grassroots level (to which House members, in particular, have to pay attention), than inside the Beltway.

4) One other point worth noting. The proposed AUMF includes an intriguing “whereas” clause that suggests an important change of position with respect to Iran’s participation at Geneva 2.0, if it should come to pass:

Whereas, the conflict in Syria will only be resolved through a negotiated settlement, and Congress calls on all parties to the conflict in Syria to participate urgently and constructively in the Geneva process…”

Of course, the invitation for Iranian participation is not made explicit, but Obama hinted at this during his PBS interview last week, as pointed out by Barbara Slavin.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.


One Comment

  1. We will see how the outcome turns. I seriously doubt that “O” will listen if it goes against his already stated action to come. As for the Congress, we will see whether or not they have the guts to stand up for America or the special interests who want a perpetual war going on in the M.E. leading up to Iran. No where has anyone said that in allowing the “O” to continue his folly, are the Congress not complicit, which by law, is aiding the enemy, because there is no threat to the American people. As I see it, the only threat is to Israel, who seems to be doing everything in its power to keep the American Military engaged, while they continue their campaign against the Palestinians unabated.

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