Democratic dialogue needed on Syria intervention
On Oct. 30, President Obama announced plans to deploy around 50 Special Operations forces to Syria — a decision which, according to an Oct. 30 New York Times article, is “the first open-ended mission by United States ground forces in that country.” President Obama has, in the past, expressed aversion at staging military operations for their own sake — so I think it’s safe to assume that their “advisory” capacity isn’t just that. “These forces do not have a combat mission,” assured Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, but given the history of “US advisors” (see: Vietnam War), this claim strains credulity. So are we going to war again? Quite possibly. “Going to war” used to mean actually drafting articles of war on another state or group — a step further than simply authorizing military action — but the last time this was actually done was December 1941, following Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor. Today, going to war more closely resembles “protracted military involvement.”― Certainly, how we conduct war has changed, but what has changed far more than that is what we are willing to admit is indeed war.
But the question that’s even harder to answer is who we are actually going to war against. Is it the Islamic State, the barbaric insurgency group controlling an area containing over ten million people — not to mention affiliate involvement in Gaza, Sinai and all over northern and central Africa, with a track record of infiltrating Western states and using an online presence to recruit fighters? Maybe it’s Bashar al-Assad, the embattled Syrian dictator whose administration was recently described, by the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, as a “bureaucracy of horror.” Is it a proxy war against Russia and Iran, both of whom are actively propping up the Assad regime?
In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, President Obama stressed that “there is no room for accommodating an apocalyptic cult like ISIL, and the United States makes no apologies for using our military, as part of a broad coalition, to go after them.” He also said “realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.” At this point in the conflict, it remains extremely difficult to see how the U.S. can meaningfully achieve both goals, much less how U.S. military intervention would be a productive catalyst for that.
We are inserting ourselves into a tri-polar civil war: Assad (supported by Russia and Iran), the Islamic State and more “moderate” rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army. If fifty troops are indeed just the tip of the iceberg, then what comes next? I posed this question to Prof. Steven Burg (POL), the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics here at Brandeis and an internationally renowned expert on ethnic conflict and military intervention.
Burg explained, “I’m opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria. I’m sort of delighted that the Russians have chosen to get themselves involved, because I think it’s only going to turn out badly. We have experience in Bosnia with the complexities of three-way warfare. In addition, it’s very difficult to know who to choose to support. My real concern is that the fifty troops that they sent is the thin edge of the wedge, and I think Americans are sort of sick of intervening in these conflicts.”
Note that Burg frames his opposition to intervening in Syria as a matter of realism. It is undeniable that the Syrian Civil War has produced a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions; indeed, the United Nations refugee agency considers it “the world’s largest catastrophe.” But if our military cannot meaningfully improve the situation on the ground, then all we are doing is giving ourselves a false sense of solvency. And it is highly likely that we would do more net harm than good, in both the short and long term. I am not even going to address the enormous financial implications of further protracted military involvement in the Middle East; suffice to say, by his own admission, Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s figures in his 2008 book “The Three Trillion Dollar War” were conservative estimates then and far out of date today.
But when it comes to U.S. military engagement, process is just as important as the policy outcome. In 2013, when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people — thereby crossing the administration’s “red line” for U.S. involvement in the conflict — President Obama said at the time that he would defer to Congress on this, because he is “president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.” This turned out to be a fiasco on so many different levels, but it looks like the Obama Administration’s take-away from the experience was that Congress is so impossibly hard to deal with that it’s not even worth it to consult them, even when it comes to large-scale military operations.
And so, the Obama Administration hasn’t even bothered to ask Congress for permission to do this — the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, aka AUMF — choosing instead to dubiously operate under the legal mandate of the AUMF that gave the Bush Administration permission to invade Iraq.
Besides the fact that sending even fifty troops into Syria, according to Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, is “flagrantly unconstitutional,” as well as a violation of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, this is terrible for the state of our democracy, as it undermines the chance of a serious public debate.
To their credit, although the Bush Administration certainly subverted and manipulated public opinion in a number of ways, by actually asking Congress for an AUMF, they allowed for a serious debate about the (stated) merits of invading Iraq. Obviously, Congress screwed up too — by assuming that the Bush Administration was acting in good faith and then neglecting its responsibility to more forcefully oversee its behavior. This time around, the Obama Administration is subverting public opinion by not even asking for its opinion at all.
And although Congress most obviously believes that President Obama is always acting in bad faith, it is still neglecting its duty to the American people by not calling on the Obama Administration to deepen our involvement when and only when there is a new AUMF.
The next commander-in-chief will absolutely have to deal with this conflict, which has no end in sight: so heading into the next presidential election, voters are being denied a serious, nuanced debate over the expansion of executive authority in foreign policy, the efficacy of the War Powers Resolution — a 1973 law passed in reaction to the Vietnam War, which requires in theory that presidents limit the length and scope of military operations not authorized by Congress — the capacity for our military to meaningfully ameliorate this horrible conflict and the lines in the sand we say we won’t cross but inevitably will.
Offering the Congress an AUMF gives the public, members of Congress and presidential candidates a chance to have this debate. It certainly gives us a chance to protest (right now I wouldn’t know what I would be protesting or for how long). And it also gives the Obama Administration a chance to truly make its case — which will help its credibility both at home and around the world.