Obama Went to Congress to Gain Political Cover for a War He Knows Is Reckless


William G. Howell at Foreign Policy explains that Obama’s decision to go to Congress was not out of respect for the Constitution but to gain political cover for an action he knows is reckless. Or, as Howell puts it, “to force members of Congress to go on the record today in order to mute their criticisms tomorrow.”

No one is under the illusion that a short, targeted strike is going to overturn the Assad regime and promptly restore some semblance of peace in the region. In the short term, the strike might actually exacerbate and prolong the conflict, making the eventual outcome even more uncertain. And even the best-planned, most-considered military action won’t go exactly according to plan. Mishaps can occur, innocent lives may be lost, terrorists may be emboldened, and anti-American protests in the region will likely flare even hotter than they currently are.

The core argument for a military strike, however, centers on the importance of strengthening international norms and laws on chemical and biological weapons, with the hope of deterring their future deployment. The Assad regime must be punished for having used chemical weapons, the argument goes, lest the next autocrat in power considering a similar course of action think he can do so with impunity.

But herein lies the quandary. The most significant reasons for military action are abstract, largely hidden, and temporally distant. The potential downsides, though, are tangible, visible, and immediate. And in a domestic political world driven by visual imagery and the shortest of time horizons, it is reckless to pursue this sort of military action without some kind of political cover.

Instead of having the recklessness, and pointlessness, of a Syria attack change his mind about the wisdom of such attacking at all, Obama seems to have vied for political cover. The cynicism of a man who spoke of hope and change is astounding.