The President Should Be Free to Choose a Response to the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

That title is my thesis.  I’m going to make the best case for it I can, then I’m going to read that case several times and see if I am still willing to go along with it.  I will say, up front, that I am trying as hard as I can to make a positive case—this is what we ought to do.  Most of the emotion I have is anger against several negative cases—things we have done already and done in the wrong way—and I know that rejecting the bad actions is no way to choose a good action.  This is a “better angels of our nature” sort of problem.

I’d like to take the time to clarify a few things before I begin.  You noticed that the title of this post Syria 1is ridiculously long.  That is because it contains all the references I now have to clarify.[1]  Note that I specify that it is “the use of chemical weapons in Syria” that requires a choice.  It is not “civil war in Syria” or “Syria’s dictator, Bashir al Assad, is a bad man.” [2]  The “red line” the President drew had to do with chemical weapons, not with who is going to govern Syria.

Second, note that I am trying to preserve for the President the freedom to choose “a response.”  I did not say “our response.”  I did not say, nor did I mean to imply, that the President should be free not to respond at all.  The President might choose diplomatic or military responses or, as is commonly the case, both in varying proportions.  The President might choose a direct military action, like bombing something, or an indirect military action, like arming whichever side has not yet used chemical weapons.  The President might choose a coordinated action by all the major powers—including, as George H. W. Bush did, the Arab League—or he might choose a unilateral U. S. action.  I am not choosing any of those.  I am saying that I want him to be free to choose the one he thinks is best.

Syria 3Finally, by “free to choose” I mean free from congressional acceptance or rejection.  By “Congress,” I do not mean the chairs of the armed services committees and the foreign intelligence committees of the House and the Senate.  They will have to be consulted.  I mean Congress as a whole.

Here is my case.  If the goal is to stop each and every instance of the use of chemical weapons, then the U. S. cannot, alone, be the guarantor of that ban.[3]  That means that a substantial array of nations and international bodies will have to agree to the ban and agreeing to the ban means agreeing to prompt and adequate punishment of whoever violates it.[4]  If President Obama is going to coordinate that scale of agreement, he is going to be collecting, “yes,” “yes, but,” and “yes, if” commitments from an extraordinary array of leaders.  The work he will need to do cannot be done in public.  That’s not how deals like that are made, particularly if our side of the deal requires extensive payments of one kind or another.

Syria 2If there is to be anything like George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order,” the unprecedentedly large collection of nations and organizations that allied to condemn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, it is going to be assembled in private.  That’s the way Bush did it and that’s the only way it can be done.  An international response, in other words, requires that the President be free to cut the best deals he can and not all of them are going to pass the sniff test.

If the President is going to treat the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons as a U. S. problem—something that will require a U. S. (not an international) response—then he is going to have to deal with the Congress.  I’m talking about House and Senate hearings, not just quiet conversations with the Gang of Eight.[5]  It will be treated to the full partisan attention of Democratic and Republican Senators and Representatives who are thinking about being reelected.  It will be thought about carefully by anyone who wants to be elected President in 2016 and who does not want what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2008 to happen to him or to her.[6]

If the question of whether the use of chemical weapons is going to become a serious international norm, defined and enforced by all the relevant nations and organizations, then it needs to be negotiated and acted on at that level.  Leaving the President free to pursue that goal requires that he be freed from the Congressional Carnival Tent so he can do the job that only he can do.

He doesn’t have to be reelected.  He cannot be reelected.  But he could actually earn the Nobel Prize he got for free just be being elected.  And he should.


[1] It is still better than “bomb, bomb, bomb/ bomb bomb Iran.”

[2] It is also not that the world would be a better place if we turned Syria into a regional model for democracy by invading them and installing a pro-Western puppet government.

[3] I would, by the way, include Agent Orange as a chemical weapon, not because it is an antipersonnel weapon by design, but because it is an antipersonnel weapon in effect.

[4] I am not opposed to involving the International Criminal Court, but they fail on the “prompt” criterion.

[5] “Specifically, the Gang of Eight includes the leaders of each of the two parties from both the Senate and House of Representatives, and the chairs and ranking minority members of both the Senate Committee and House Committee for intelligence as set forth by 50 U.S.C. § 413(c).”  That’s from Wikipedia: I got it by googling “Congress Gang of Eight.”

[6] The early Obama v. Clinton contest was very tight and one of Obama’s very large early advantages over Clinton was that George W. Bush had forced her to vote for the war in Iraq, while State Senator Barack Obama was out giving speeches against it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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