ON THE HORNS OF A DILEMMA
Selling Military Action against
Syria to the American People
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
This evening [Tuesday 10 September 2013] at 9 o'clock Washington Time [0100 GMT, 11 Sep], Barack Hussein Obama- 44th President of the United States of America- will address his Nation (and, by extension, the World-- as well as, more particularly, the Congress of the United States) in an attempt to convince all who might be watching on television- or at least listening (via radio, Internet audio streaming, etc.)- that the United States, with or without allies, must "send a message" to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, president of the Syrian Arab Republic, in the form of a "limited military strike" on Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons on ordinary Syrian civilians nearly three weeks earlier.
It has, albeit arguably, become the most important- indeed, pivotal- moment of the Obama Presidency: one in which the very task (that of so convincing the unconvinced and/or reluctant) taken on by the President himself has itself become rather daunting.
In the first few days after these chemical attacks in the Damascus suburbs (which, reportedly, killed close to 1500 persons, nearly one-third of them children) back on 21 August, it all- by comparison- seemed so "cut and dried": the 'civilized World' simply could not remain silent in the face of this and the only reasonable response (or so it seemed at the time) was a series of missile strikes- launched from ships out in the eastern Mediterranean- against military targets (such as, presumably, chemical weapons depots and launch sites and the like) within Syria itself.
Both British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande were so openly "on board" with just such an American-led military action (there would also likely, or so it seemed at the time, be tacit- where not even open- support for this from at least most of the members of the European Union [many of them NATO allies], as well as from many countries within the Arab World [not to also, of course, mention Israel]). Come the week beginning on Sunday the 25th of August, such military action seemed imminent-- that is: "within days".
But, soon enough, the proverbial "wheels" began to "come off" this 'Military Action Against Syria' bandwagon: for it was already known that both Russia and China would veto any such military action should United Nations Security Council approval be sought (so, from the very start, such a military response to the chemical attacks would simply have to be a US-UK-France only deal)-- yet it was Russia that began the "saber-rattling" per se. Russia's vehement opposition (especially in light of an upcoming 'G20' Summit to soon take place in Russia) shook up many an EU (where not also NATO) member and even Prime Minister Cameron decided to go before Parliament with his reasons (as well as much evidence as to the source of the 21 August chemical attacks as could then be safely declassified [which wasn't all that much, really]).
Cameron was only asking for support for military action against Syria "in principle" (any vote on joining in on an American-led military action would have come later) but was rebuked, at the start, by a 285-272 vote against in the House of Commons on 29 August. Next day, President Obama himself announced that he would seek congressional authorization for such military action (instead of acting solely under cover of his claimed prerogatives as constitutional Commander-in-Chief of the Nation's Armed Forces) and- since Congress was, at the time, still in Recess- this, pretty much, put the ol' "ki-Bosh" on the whole thing until the First Session of the 113th Congress could reconvene come 9 September.
So, here we are on the very day after the current Session of Congress has now resumed.
Of the two chambers of the American Congress, the United States Senate seems (if only to a limited degree) the more "hawkish" as regards a military strike against Syria (last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported out a Resolution authorizing the President to act by a vote of 10-7 [which puts it onto the Floor of the Senate for its consideration as soon as possible after the President's televised appeal to the Nation, well ahead of the other chamber]). This is actually not all that surprising- where one takes a constitutional, as opposed to the merely political, perspective: the Senate, by design, is the moderating "second chamber" of a bicameral legislature and, therefore, tempers the "passions of the People" almost always so evident within the "first chamber"- the House of Representatives. Thus, the Senate tends to lean more anti-'whatever' (where 'whatever' is, indeed, whatever happens to be driving the various and sundry issues of the day) or, at least, institutionally ever asks the question: "Are we really sure we want to do (or, as in this case, do not want to do) that?".
There are those who have difficulty with- where not also frustrated, or even offended, by- the Senate's constitutional position in this particular regard: yet the fact remains (and this despite the upcoming 2014 Midterm Elections happening to mark the Centennial of the first regularly scheduled Federal Elections in which United States Senators were elected via Popular Vote, rather than by State Legislatures) that representation in the Senate is "corporate" (that is: each "corporate" governmental entity- in the USofA, its constituent States- having the same number of seats therein) as opposed to "territorial" (perhaps confusingly, "territorial" representation is each "corporate" polity having a number of seats roughly based on the population of said polity: the type of representation utilized in the Federal House of Representatives [representation in which districts- based on equal population in each- cross "corporate" or jurisdictional borders is known as "actual" or "real" representation (this is found in many American State legislatures), as is a system in which an entire legislative body is elected at large (impractical, however, where said body serves a comparatively large geographical area)]. Therefore (as I myself have often noted on this very website), the Senate still represents Americans in their respective capacities as citizens of the several States of the American Union (not as American citizens per se): rather, it is the U.S. House which far more represents the average American as a citizen of the United States of America itself.
And it is the House that remains the more skeptical chamber in Congress as regards military action against Syria (such skepticism reflecting that which seems to well pervade the American electorate at large) and this skepticism (to be fair, seen among many members of the Senate as well) as regards the President's plans to strike Syria militarily principally stems from three main sources (now I shall address the "merely political" perspective):
First, there is a minority that is unsympathetic to military action in any event. Some of these are liberal Democrats who tend, in general, to be most skeptical of projection of American power worldwide-- that is: they are not exactly "fans" of the ramifications of either NATO as "the 3rd American Empire" or the now-nearly 110 year old '[Theodore] Roosevelt Corollary' expressing the notion of the United States as a 'global policeman'; however, neither are more than a few Republicans of more libertarian bent (with their own support of 'Continental [only] Defense' [as a constitutional mandate] along with concomitant resistance to "entangling alliances" [let alone the United Nations]) .
A somewhat larger minority (one made up of more traditionally conservative Republicans) is opposed to a military strike on Syria on grounds that it is all too much "Action confused with Accomplishment". If the goal is, in fact, the toppling of the al-Assad regime in Syria (much as the goal in Libya two years back now was the toppling of Gaddafi), then the "limited military action" now proposed by President Obama doesn't go far enough. Many of these will, in the end, support military action against Syria on grounds that "something is, nonetheless, better than nothing" but they are certainly not all that pleased!
But the "bell curve" of the skepticism in the House of Representatives (and one that most clearly mirrors the skepticism of much of the American electorate itself) is largely based on what had been termed "war-weariness". The United States has finally gotten out of Iraq and is drawing down as regards Afghanistan and, yet, "Brother, here we go again!". Exacerbated by both those Republicans who wouldn't trust the Obama Administration as far as one could throw a dime and those many Democrats who are still scarred by former President George W. Bush's-- well-- "dissembling" when it came to the real reasons American troops invaded Iraq over a decade ago now, the prevailing attitude appears to be one of "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!" (albeit for vastly different reasons on either side of the Aisle).
Simply put: President Obama has one hell of a "sales job" here!
As for the rest of the World, no other country can (or, at least, is even going to) act against Syria without the United States taking the lead, so every other potential ally in this effort (even France which has been the only European ally consistently in favor of a military response [at least within its own leadership cadre]) now can afford to sit and wait for both the American President's "selling the program" and, then, the reaction of- reflected by the ultimate Roll Call votes on the floor of each chamber in- the American Congress.
No wonder that President Obama, as of this typing, very much resembles a polar bear alone on an ever-shrinking, melting political ice floe!
In an attempt to rescue himself from outright abandonment, the President "flooded the coverage" (as in news coverage) by appearing on several early evening television news programs- on both the major 'over the air' networks as well as the main 'cable' news services here in the United States- yesterday (Monday 9 September).
But his own "pre-sell" was already, by then, well undermined by a public suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry (presented as, perhaps, merely an offhand remark [yet maybe not!]) that Syria give up control of its own chemical weapons arsenal as a means to its avoiding the military "punishment" the Obama Administration is prepared to dish out (should Congress go along, of course): Bashar al-Assad's staunchest ally, Russia, immediately jumped on this, even offering to oversee just such a thing [although Kerry was most certainly opining the possibility of international oversight])...
what this has done, obviously, is to now well "muddy the waters", giving Democrats in both the House and the Senate political "cover" (very few Democrats want to undermine a President of their own Party; yet, at the same time, rather few Democrats want to have to vote for an authorization for a military strike) but- more to the point- allowing Syria (as well as Russia) to buy more time (thereby, perhaps, "sealing the deal" as far as international opinion against an American-led military strike).
The problem for the White House, however, is that President Obama had- as early as the weekend following the 21 August chemical attacks in Syria- already "painted himself into a corner": having, for over two weeks now, beat the drum for just such a direct response, the President now finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma engendered by the very notion that "one should not ever make threats one has no real intention- and/or ability- to actually carry out". Barack Obama does have the intention, yes, but- abandoned through the democratic processes of a close ally (Britain) and threatened with not even winning over the hearts and minds of the duly elected representatives of the American People here at home- his ability to do that which he has been claiming most needs to be done is very likely to be outright compromised--- and then what?!