Why should you support Obama on Syria?

Because you’d rather have the President of the United States negotiate from strength than from weakness.

Most sentences containing the word “credibility” are nonsense. But the following, I submit, is not nonsense.

1. Threats are a tool of diplomacy.
2. The U.S. had reason to want the Assad gang not to use chemical weapons.
3. Barack Obama issued a threat: the use of chemical weapons would bring consequences in its train.
4. A party that makes threats and does not follow through when the announced trigger event happens is less convincing in making future threats. That’s a cost.
5. Therefore the fact that a threat was made constitutes an independent reason to carry it out. In that regard, a threat has much in common with a promise. You want your threats, like your promises, to be “credible”: i.e., worthy of belief.
6. The fact that backing down from a threat is costly is always an argument against making the threat in the first place. But it need not be a clinching argument.
7. Similarly, the fact that backing down is costly is always an argument for following through: again, clinching or not depending on other circumstances.
8. Ergo, you might want to back Obama’s play even if you thought that the immediate effects of an attack were likely to be, on balance, unfavorable rather than favorable. Or you might not.

The above is about actually making an attack on Syria. But there’s also a second-order question here. You and I and the Congress don’t get to decide about an attack. We get to decide whether to authorize the President to make an attack.* With that authorization in hand, he might be able to negotiate a better deal than he could without such an authorization in hand. So you could reasonably back Obama’s play even if you thought that an actual attack was a bad idea, in the hopes of getting the benefits of the authorization without an actual attack.

The fact that the Russians are now offering to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons might or might not be a head-fake. But I submit that it’s clearly the product of Obama’s threat to go to war. If a genuine offer is on the table, I hope that the Administration grabs it. But if the Russians and Syrians know that Obama can’t attack, that offer is likely to disappear.

And yes, as my dovish friends will no doubt remind me, I reasoned in just the same manner about authorizing GWB and his cronies to attack Iraq. And yes, we know now that they were never negotiating in good faith, being committed to war from the git-go. And yes, we now know that they were lying about the underlying facts. I have no reason to think that any such things are true about the current President or the people around him. Given a choice between believing Barack Obama and John Kerry on the one hand or believing Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Rush Limbaugh, and Pam Geller on the other, I’m not likely to hesitate for very long.

For GWB and Cheney, war with Iraq looked like a huge partisan advantage, which is mostly what they cared about. Politically, I can see only risks and no gains for Obama in dropping bombs in Syria. So, if I were in the Congress, I would vote for an authorization to use force while hoping (and telling the President’s people I was hoping) that it would never need to be acted on.

Footnote If Obama manages to bluff the Syrians out of their chemical weapons, will we hear apologies from the critics on the left and right who have been talking about “amateur hour”?

Just asking.

Update Some of the commentary suggests that this sentence wasn’t clear. I did not intend to assert  that the President has the power to attack without authorization. (There’s apparently a controversy on this point, though I would have thought the War Powers Act made it clear that he didn’t, absent exigent circumstances.) I meant simply that the Congress cannot order the President to attack, even by declaring war.  The choice still remains in the President’s hands. This is unlike the situation when the Congress appropriates money, which the President is then obliged to spend.  So there’s no contradiction between voting to authorize force and hoping that force will not be used.

Second update And no, the fact that random positive reinforcement yields hard-to-break habits does not mean that sporadic punishment works better than consistent punishment. Reward and punishment are not symmetric, and bluffing is a bad habit in parents and diplomats alike.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

79 thoughts on “Why should you support Obama on Syria?”

  1. I don’t have any special info about what the White House is up to.

    But, I’ve been wondering all along, since the idea of getting Congressional okays was floated, if this wasn’t a brilliant ploy to hoist the Republicans on their own petard.

    If they kill the okay they are unpatriotic. If they don’t (by far the most likely outcome) they are onboard with the President.

    Plus, as the Russian suggestions of today show, stalling can be a very good thing–make a threat and find a way to keep it alive while bringing Congress along yet, maybe, never have to follow though but still get the desired result.

    1. This might work if public opinion was basically neutral or better. It isn’t, so wrong-footing the goopers on this one is really, really hard for Obama to do.

      Events in Syria are terrible, but … whenever they start emoting about dead children, you know a) they want to do something military, and b) it’s for other reasons than what they’re saying. That’s worked since at least Kuwait in 1991, when the PR agency that HW Bush hired developed it. This proposed missile wave has never smelled to me like a response to chemical weapons.

      It’s been proposed that our intelligence and defense establishment is disturbed that Assad seems to be consolidating and getting the upper hand. US policy has been predicated on the idea that there’s a stalemate that needs to be negotiated out of; from that point the state apparatus stays intact while differing groups are drawn in and represented. If Assad’s gaining, that doesn’t work. So the purpose of these attacks would be to degrade Assad’s abilities just enough to restore a stalemate.

      I don’t know if that’s the real story– if it is I’m dubious about any “calibration” that fine– but I have been made cynical enough by now to believe that there _is_ a real story that nobody has been willing to be publicly explicit about.

  2. “…only risks and no gains for Obama in dropping bombs in Syria.”

    That’s a lot like playing Russian roulette — and all the other guys decided they’d sit this round out. So they want you to pull the trigger?

    This is some pretty useless logic. It’s also the basic reasoning of those who’d oppose this war in another context, but not in this one. All told, a pretty poor dog’s breakfast of reasons to start dropping bombs. And what after that? No one seems to know, but good things just do not come to mind. There are other ways of dealing with this. Chem weapons are bad and so are the people who use them. This is the diplomatic moment to consolidate opposition to the Syrian regime. Instead, Obama has picked the most divisive solution.

    BTW, sabre-rattling has rather much gone out of diplomatic fashion as impressive. It probably buys more disrespect than appreciation among foreign audiences, but that’s nothing new. If the only difference between us and North Korea is that we attack after running our mouths with threats, I’m not sure that’s a good comparison?

    1. “This is the diplomatic moment to consolidate opposition to the Syrian regime.”

      I keep hearing that. Something tells me they’ve been trying for several years to do that. The Russian offer may or may not be sincere, but it’s a lot more concrete than the critics who say just let diplomacy solve this thing. The critics need to have an actual proposal, not their own version of the right wing Green Lantern theory that we just need to try diplomacy harder.

      1. “an actual proposal”?

        You mean beyond bombing something? I know blowing up things sounds like concrete action to some, but I think you’ve just been taken in by the usual rush to war commentary that accompanies the lack of an actual proposal to fix things once they’ve been blown up.

  3. Well, I suppose if I knew for an absolute fact that Obama wouldn’t bomb Syria, I would support his bluff. Of course, If I know that he’s bluffing, then so do Assad and Putin.

    And if he isn’t bluffing, then I don’t want him authorized to bomb,in the hopes that he will decide it’s not worth it.

    On balance, there’s no scenario when I would support the authorization of bombing.

    1. Headline story this morning–

      Report: Syria agrees to surrendering chemical weapons

      After weeks of escalating tension, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday that the country has accepted Russia’s proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control. …etc.
      ————————
      Well, it’s too early to be sure, but it appears that:
      (a) Perhaps Obama’s been watching some high-powered poker tournaments, where the top players like Phil Ivey know that you can only bluff effectively if your opponents can’t read you.
      (b) Maybe he was bluffing or maybe not, but nobody could tell for sure.
      (c) Maybe his appeal for Congressional approval was real, or maybe it was a continuation bet to conceal his initial bluff, but nobody could tell for sure. In any case, making his public statement that he would ask for congressional approval while they were out on recess was apparently the perfect timing for that bet.
      (d) Maybe Congress would have rolled over, or maybe not, but nobody could tell for sure.
      (e) Maybe the Ruskis were just bluffing too, or maybe not, but nobody could tell for sure.
      (f) Maybe Assad was playing a strong hand, or maybe not, but nobody could tell for sure.

      In any case, this morning’s headline seems to indicate that the denouement might be satisfactory to all the players. Congress will not have to decide whether to approve war-like actions, and one little piece of the Middle East mess might be disposed of … leaving only the other 937 pieces still to be dealt with.

      1. …and re: Mark’s update number 2–

        “…bluffing is a bad habit in parents and diplomats alike.”

        Parents? Yes. Diplomats? Heck no. Diplomacy is totally unlike parenting. Diplomacy is much more like poker. If you never bluff, your opponents can read you like an open book. No poker player in history has ever been a winner just waiting for good hands.

  4. So you blow up a bunch of stuff, and Assad is still in power, and he’s
    still killing his opponents with poison gas. Now you’ve killed a lot
    of people, risked various kinds of blowback, and spent a ton of money,
    and still lost your credibility, because you did what you threatened
    to do but it was ineffective. What next ?

    War is bad. Don’t start a war unless you really need to. Don’t get
    involved in someone else’s war for some nebulous and probably
    unattainable goal. And preferably don’t spend $700B a year on a
    military, because with all those toys you’ll always be tempted to
    blow stuff up even though experience suggests that it rarely makes
    the situation better, and much more often makes it worse.

    And don’t try to come up with excessively clever reasons to do something
    stupid.

    1. Richard, you wrote “Don’t start a war unless you really need to.”

      I’d append another sentence right after that: “And don’t start a war unless you intend to WIN it.”

      1. I’m mostly a utilitarian, so I think the rule should be more like
        “don’t start a war unless you have the plan and the resources to
        give a high probability of achieving a better net outcome than doing nothing”.
        And since every war involves huge costs in blood and money, that’s
        a really hard condition to meet.

        Or you can even go further and compare the benefit of the war with the
        possible benefit of applying the same quantity of resources to some
        other goal, e.g. eradicating polio, preventing malaria, repairing bridges …

        The trouble with talking about “winning” is that war is very much a negative-sum
        game: stuff gets blown up, people get killed, resources are wasted. It’s
        very possible, and perhaps the most common result, for all participants in
        a war to end up worse off. In the case of Syria, it’s very likely that the
        USA could kill Assad or force him out of power, but as we saw in Iraq and
        Afghanistan, that kind of military “win” doesn’t necessarily get you anything
        of value.

        1. “Nothing, except a battle lost, can be half so melancholy as a battle won”

          Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

    2. If Assad is stupid enough to do it again (which hasn’t been the case following limited Israeli strikes against him), then you send 1.5 times as many cruise missiles against his military as you did the first time. We can keep this going longer than he can. Limited retaliation has been part of warfare for ages.

      That said, we should wait for this opportunity to get the chem weapons to play itself out, even at the risk of a second chemical attack.

  5. Plus there’s credible doubt that Assad authorized this use, and there’s a larger than ignorable possibility that one or more rebel groups used the chemical weapons. Why would Assad invite the inspectors in if he knew they’d find him responsible? Why are we interfering with the international inspections? It gives me a huge Iraq deja vu.

    Grab the Russian offer.

    Obama shouldn’t have rattled his saber, and now we’re stuck. We shouldn’t attack Assad; it’s too expensive–we can’t afford it.

    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2013/08/cheat-sheet-on-syria.html
    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2013/08/experts-u-s-case-that-syrian-government-responsible-for-chemical-weapons-is-weak.html

    1. Do you acknowledge that the Russian offer would not be on the table but for the saber-rattling? “You get far more cooperation with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”

      1. Do you acknowledge that the Russian offer would not be on the table but for the saber-rattling?

        No. Because the administration never made chemical weapons the priority, they made regime change the priority, so there was no reason to offer to pull the chemical weapons. I did not know they were concerned with chemical weapons to the point that they would start talking like Bush if they were used. I think being that concerned with chemical weapons is silly.

        In any event, what you’re saying applies equally well to Putin. I don’t actually care very much if either of these guys is a genius negotiator (evidence suggests not) or an idiot (probably not) or they’ve just bumbled into the solution (diplomatic history suggests that’s the usually the way it works).

        And yes, we know now that they were never negotiating in good faith, being committed to war from the git-go. And yes, we now know that they were lying about the underlying facts.

        And see, this is why I do not trust you in matters of war – the point is not that Iraq was a sensible idea executed by evil people, the point is that when you’re in the middle of an unrelated war with a bunch of terrorists, going after what’s left of a third-rate dictatorship because you’re obsessed with the guy is an utterly stupid idea no matter who executes it.

        Likewise, going for regime change in Syria when you’re not in a good position to execute, and when you have a high likelihood of enthroning some evil dudes is also a stupid idea, no matter how much DC types are peeing their pants about chemical weapons. (There was a window, awhile ago, when you might have gotten rid of Assad and had an outcome similar to Libya, but you needed the Turks to help and the window closed in 2012 at the latest.)

        max
        [‘But having gotten himself into this jam originally, I’m glad Obama is trying to get out of said jam, and I’m glad if he gets Syria to ditch their weapons.’]

        1. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday after meeting with Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly agreed to the Russian initiative to “derail the U.S. aggression.”

          http://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/syria-says-it-accepted-russian-weapons-proposal.php

          BTW, Turkey seems pretty ready to support the opposition. A safe haven on the Syrian side of the border that excluded Al Qaeda types could have helped organize the opposition for the last two years. It still could.

          1. Perhaps the U S of A could commit to, and then execute, accepting 250,000 Syrian refugees as legal immigrants within 6 months. Both Syrian nationals& Iraqi double-refugees. That would address huminatarian concerns (real and faux), upset the status quo in the Syrian civil war, and fully demonstrate US “seriousness”. Any takers?

            Cranky

          2. That would greatly weaken the opposition. So, no. Give Syrians a chance to live in their own country in their own country instead as citizens, in a safe haven where they can organize elections and start running a Free Syria.

      2. This post is all about wanting to have it both ways. Either “bluffing is a bad habit in parents and diplomats alike,” or bluffing is okay because it works. I would go with the former, but even if you want to go with the latter, it hasn’t yet worked.

        And even it does “work,” it won’t really work. If this is all about macho posturing credibility, then Obama will have still failed to carry through his threat, and U.S. credibility will be damaged, just as it was when we pulled out of Lebanon in the ’80s. (That is to say, U.S. credibility won’t be seriously damaged at all.)

        And the problem with Saddam’s chemical weapons was not merely their lack of existence. The fact is, the use of chemical weapons was a stupid reason to go to war, and we were wise not to go to war with Saddam when he actually used chemical weapons.

        1. Agreed. And Mark’s argument really comes down to the old ‘credibility’ argument, that *any* failing will have severe consequences.

  6. I don’t know anyone on the left saying “amateur hour.” I know I feel Obama means what he says when he wants to go to war. I know that Kerry has more doubts than Obama and that’s how Kerry got caught in his so-called “gaffe” that, as Digby insightfully writes, may offer the same way out that legend has about RFK saying answer the friendly note from the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s not amateur hour. That’s just Kerry using his moral sense against the “credibility” machine that so infects people from Joe Lieberman to Barack Obama. Kerry fought heart and soul against the credibility machine back in the day. Again, that isn’t about being an amateur.

    Obama wants to show he’s tough. That’s how he thinks he maintains his own credibility. Kerry is a different kettle of fish, even as he wrongly endorsed the Iraq War II in 2002 and early 2003.

  7. “You and I and the Congress don’t get to decide about an attack.”

    The highest law of the land, which the President swore to uphold, disagrees with you, and quite explicitly assigned that decision to Congress. Try again.

    1. No, Brett. The highest law of the land declares clearly that the President is
      the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Congress has, in theory, though
      hardly in practice over the last 50 years, the responsibility to declare war –
      but the decision about whether and when to attack is down to the C-in-C.

      Of course, an attack on Syria would only be allowed under international law
      in the case of self-defense, or in implementing a UN Security Council resolution.
      But international law doesn’t count for much (if you’re strong).

      1. I think Brett has by far the better of this argument. The Constitution doesn’t stop being the highest law of the land merely because some generals and politicos stop being faithful to it.

        Equally important is that the ambiguities over the war power seem to flow from the (now disproven assumption) that the United States would never face a situation where we wouldn’t be responding to an attack on ourselves or an ally. You seem to be another one urging us to adapt to an unpalatable reality rather than improve it. Rather than acknowledging that our frequent military “interventions” seem to have legitimized aggressive, undeclared wars waged by the president and the generals on their own say so, I would greatly prefer that the presidents commander-in-chief powers be limited to prosecuting declared wars or responding to attacks on this country.

        I have to say that one of the proudest moments of my life as an American was the debate in Congress over the first Iraq War. I would have preferred that they debated a formal declaration of war but even so it was pretty impressive. Paradoxically, since we’re discussing our Constitution and our war of independence from perfidious Albion, I can’t help noticing that the British prime minister who went to the parliament rather than arrogate to himself the power to wage war. Yet another interesting comparison similar to our president’s resurrection of the general warrant which was, ironically, a chief grievance of the colonists against the Crown and another example of how Americans might actual have more rights and greater freedom had we remained in union with England.

        1. The Congress has the power to “declare war and conclude peace.” It does not have the power to order an attack. That seems to me utterly clear from the text of the Constitution and from the logic of military command.

          1. But if the president could simply order attacks in his own, wouldn’t that render Congress’s power to declare war nugatory? Surely it must be the case that it is for Congress to decide if should attack some other country, particularly if the president is looking to embark upon a war of choice or a war of aggression. I think the distinction I drew which has Congress deciding about with whom we will be at war while the president has the sole authority to prosecute the wars Congress declares is far more consistent with the intentions of the framers.

          2. “wouldn’t that render Congress’ power to declare war nugatory?”

            Yes indeed. Every President for decades has “ordered attacks on his own”
            with impunity. The effective power of Congress is not over the initial
            attack, but over the appropriations necessary to fund any prolonged
            military operation.

          3. But that’s only to say that the executive has usurped the power to start wars. Not that he is entitled to.

          4. In reply to Brett: the Constitution was designed in a time when there was no standing
            army, no intention of having one, and when any attack on another nation would require
            many months of preparation in raising, training, and equipping an army, and weeks of
            travel to actually reach any target on foreign soil. In an age where we have
            intercontinental missiles and bombers, and submarines and aircraft carriers able
            to strike within minutes anywhere in the world, is nonsense. Inevitably the President
            as C-in-C can, and frequently does, order attacks without a vote in Congress.

            I happen to think that Presidents of both parties have used that power unwisely,
            but I don’t need an argument about the original intent of the sacred framers of the
            Constitution, 3/5 of a person and all, making it unconstitutional. It’s just stupid
            and counterproductive, not unconstitutional. And it would still be foolish, like
            much else, if Congress voted for it (as it did with the Iraq fiasco).

          5. In reply to Kleiman’s mention of the War Powers Act: it would probably be
            nice if the War Powers Act were truly effective, but it ain’t. The
            President’s C-in-C power comes directly and clearly from the Constitution,
            and Congress can pass laws until it’s blue in the face and they won’t
            trump it. The President can issue orders to attack; the military will
            obey them; and you can’t do anything about it short of impeachment,
            which won’t happen because it needs a big supermajority in the Senate.

            Changing this would take a constitutional amendment.

        2. Mitch Guthman says:

          “I think Brett has by far the better of this argument. The Constitution doesn’t stop being the highest law of the land merely because some generals and politicos stop being faithful to it. ”

          By the letter of the law, yes – please mark the occasion, when Brett is honest and correct.

          However, by decades of bipartisan practice, no.

          This is like with the NSA – decades ago, the idea that the government had nearly unlimited phone tapping and mail interception rights (not necessarily the ability, note, but the right) would have been tossed out by courts.

          Now, part of the 4th amendment has been rendered moot, by redefining ‘unreasonable’ to mean – heck, I don’t know what an unreasonable search means in the eyes of SCOTUS, when it comes to ‘national security’.

          1. The two great wars of the recent presidency of G.W. Bush were Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two have pushed any other of his conflicts into a forgotten apse in my brain, so this is not a snark, simply a memory refresher question for a guy who’s getting older. Somebody remind me if there were other attacks he ordered without approval of Congress.

  8. 1. Is true.
    2. Is false. We had no interest whatsoever whether Assad uses chemical weapons or not. Not only do we have no dog in the fight, but chemical weapons are no worse than conventional weapons and the CWC, while not totally unimportant, has been violated before (Iraq against the Kurds and Iran) and is not really all that crucial. In fact, an obsession with chemical weapons helped us get into Iraq, which was terrible.
    3. Is true. President Obmaa idiotically issued such a threat.
    4. Is true. And since enforcing the CWC is not very important (and to the extent it is important, is a matter for the UN Security Council and not us alone), and due to the problems we got into in Iraq, weakening Obama’s ability to make future threats in this area is very much a positive. Plus, more generally, any weakening of the President in foreign affairs is basically good, because Presidents have turned into dictators in violation of our constitutional principles in that area.
    5. Is not true, both because of 4 and because it is a non sequitur. If the benefit of carrying out a threat is exceeded by its cost, you should eat the credibility loss anyway.
    6. Is meaningless.
    7. Is also meaningless.
    8. Is also meaningless.

    The above is about actually making an attack on Syria. But there’s also a second-order question here. You and I and the Congress don’t get to decide about an attack. We get to decide whether to authorize the President to make an attack.

    This is John Kerry’s BS after the fact rationalization for voting for Bush and Cheney to murder Iraqis. In any event, it isn’t really true. There is no precedent for Congress voting for war and the President not going to war.

    Further, the flip side of it is that by voting against Obama, it will hopefully deter Obama from shooting his mouth off about chemical weapons in the future, which would be a very good thing because it will keep the Mark Kleimans of the world from making credibility gap arguments later.

    The fact that the Russians are now offering to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons might or might not be a head-fake. But I submit that it’s clearly the product of Obama’s threat to go to war.

    1. You don’t know this. 2. Since there is no US interest in whether Syria has chemical weapons or uses them anyway, it is neither here nor there.

    1. #4 is not true, and pretty much undercuts this whole silly line of argument about foreign policy ‘cred’. There was a recent WaPo article citing a couple of political scientist who have actually studied the historical record in this regard. The credibility of the state making the threat is dictated by the current assessments and circumstances, not a review of the past “follow though” by the one making the threats.

  9. “Given a choice between believing Barack Obama and John Kerry on the one hand or believing Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Rush Limbaugh, and Pam Geller on the other, I’m not likely to hesitate for very long.”

    This, really, is the heart of the thesis. “My Side” says A and “Their Side” says B and so the important thing is to construct a chain of plausible-sounding arguments for A that dismiss the specific facts on the ground but are just reasonable enough sounding as to provide cover for a course of action that, if it were counseled by Their Side, would almost certainly be greeted with stern opposition by the author.

    The fact the the particular “Our Side” being defended includes The One while the “Their Side” being argued against conveniently includes* a murderous dictator, an unreliable autocrat, a racist activist and a radio talk show host who serves a a stand-in in these sorts of discussions for “people us good folks don;t much like” is just rhetorical gravy.

    *And – Wonder of Wonders! – omits such folks as the leaders of almost every other Western state, the vast majority of the foreign policy establishment, the leaders of most vocal religious bodies, 2/3 – 3/4 of the American people, etc. etc. etc.

  10. Why assume that weapons inspections counts as a win? Will the US ever be in a position to credibly say that all of the weapons have been accounted for? And if it can’t, won’t that just count as another causus belli?

    Poison gas is easy to hide, and no one is proposing that we put an army of inspectors on the ground (I hope!)

    It seems to me that if we insist on inspections, we’ll just be doubling down, and betting more of our precious credibility.

  11. Mark, your point number 4 (and the logical consequents that follow it) fly in the face of a huge body of experimental evidence in the field of psychology.

    The strongest reinforcement is randomized partial reinforcement.

  12. I submit that the logical flaw in your argument falls between steps 3 and 5. 3 and 4 are both true; Obama did indeed issue a threat that chemical weapons would bring consequences, and a party that doesn’t follow through loses credibility. However, 5 doesn’t logically follow from those premises (that therefore the US needs to bomb Syria). Consequences can be defined quite broadly and it’s not clear to me that the Kerry / Russia proposal doesn’t address the same point in a different and reasonable way.

    Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily mean that because Obama himself loses some credibility in this instance that he would lose credibility in other instances (e.g., with respect to Iran), especially since the circumstances are quite different. Additionally, there are ways to bolster credibility – multilateral advance agreements, pre-authorization from Congress, etc. – that can circumvent that point.

  13. it seems that john cole learned much more from his experience of having backed gwb’s war on iraq than dr. kleiman has. such a shame.

      1. Because of course GWB and Barack Obama are interchangeable, so if one was a lunatic liar so was the other.
        Do I have your logic right?

        1. That’s a fair point, although Susan Rice’s speech and Gen. Alexander still having a job after repeatedly lying to Congress did give me a little twinge of déjà vu.

        2. from the threading of the comments it seems you were replying to mr. guthman but i would like to clarify my point. having watched one president take us into a war of choice in the recent past mr. cole is rather less willing to give another president the benefit of the doubt in doing things that lead down a similar path. the one thing about bush and obama that is interchangeable is the office of the president of the united states. in late 2002, based on my reading of the situation at the time, i thought going to war with iraq was a terrible idea that would primarily result in the draining of our treasury, the deaths of thousands of our troops, the collateral murder of thousands of civilians, and the demorilization of our country. my reading of the current circumstances combined with my reading of history indicate to me that where there are no good military actions watchful inaction combined with public and private diplomacy is the best choice.

        3. Since *you* couldn’t tell at the time that GWB was a lunatic liar (a fact
          which was pretty darn obvious to me and millions of other DFHs), I don’t
          think your judgment of whether Obama is being wise or foolish counts
          for much. And of course he’s being advised by a bunch of generals with
          the same background and training as those who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan
          with no remotely plausible plan to get us out.

          1. “Since *you* couldn’t tell at the time that GWB was a lunatic liar (a fact
            which was pretty darn obvious to me and millions of other DFHs), I don’t
            think your judgment of whether Obama is being wise or foolish counts
            for much. And of course he’s being advised by a bunch of generals with
            the same background and training as those who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan
            with no remotely plausible plan to get us out.”

            Seconded. Mark, one of my rules on this is that the people who got it wrong, arrogantly wrong, should sit quietly at the kids’ table and let the people who got it right discuss it.

          2. mr. c., one quibble i have with your analysis is that if you read through general dempsey’s unclassified letters to senator levin and congressman engel it’s pretty clear that this is a fight that our generals don’t really want to get involved in, at least not right now.

        4. “Because of course GWB and Barack Obama are interchangeable, so if one was a lunatic liar so was the other.
          Do I have your logic right?”

          No, it’s when our elites are offering – nay, demanding a war which seems to be dumb, then it is dumb. When the publicly proffered strategic plan makes the underwear Gnomes’ plan look good, the there is no secret good strategic plan.

          When the obvious allies with deep interests don’t want to get involved, then that means something.

          When a ‘wise man’ (Powell then, Kerry now) start talking nonsense, then it is time to file him in the ‘former wise man’ file.

          When people talk about ‘credibility’ in support of something which they want, it means that they don’t have any good arguments left. And this means that there *are* no good arguments.

          And the argument that Obama knows what he’s doing, and wouldn’t f*ck it up, because that would hurt him, is an argument also used for the Iraq War.

  14. A president who orders military action that is over quickly, and doesn’t result in heavy casualties for our side generally gets a bump in the polls. Even when there’s opposition beforehand, much of that opposition goes away once the planes are in the air. Whether the action works toward some foreign policy objective makes less difference.

    It’s the long, dragged-out operations that wear down a president’s approval ratings, especially when service personnel are killed.

    From the standpoint of domestic politics (and there are other considerations) there is very little downside to Obama ordering a few surgical airstrikes against a country that doesn’t have much in the way of air defense. If the historical pattern holds, he’ll be seen as resolute and forceful, even in taking on members of his and the opposition party.

  15. That I prefer this president to the former one in no way obligates me to agree with him on everything. You are making this too much “about” the president. It’s not really about him and his poor choice of words. The question is whether the course of action makes sense. He’s in a second term, he faces no real loss of prestige — that’s all Beltway made-up b.s. I don’t give a flying f*** about the kind of people who think that way — even if Assad is one of them. He’s not afraid of us because he knows we aren’t going to invade. And we’re not. And we shouldn’t, since we have no clue what to do with Syria.

    And this post ignores a whole lot of potential consequences of getting directly involved in a civil war. If chemical weapons were really that bad and the only possible response were violence, we wouldn’t be alone internationally.

    I hope the Russian offer works out though.

  16. …..or believing Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Rush Limbaugh, and Pam Geller on the other, I’m not likely to hesitate for very long.

    You left Michelle Bachmann off that list, but that might be offset by Pat Robertson on your side, and then there is this other fellow…gosh, what is his name? Oh, yes. David Cameron. Interesting company you keep there, Mark! Let’s mark this line of argument off as just another Boehner, eh?

  17. Isn’t much of this obtained simply by delaying what promises to be a close vote?

    Right now the big threat to the threat is the possibility that Congress will refuse to authorize action. But there is at least the possibility that having a serious diplomatic proposal fail because of Syrian intransigence would change a few minds in Congress. So the delay definitely applies some pressure, and may be useful in the inevitably complex negotiations over control of the chemical weapons.

  18. RichardC says:
    September 10, 2013 at 3:44 am

    “In reply to Brett: the Constitution was designed in a time when there was no standing
    army, no intention of having one, and when any attack on another nation would require
    many months of preparation in raising, training, and equipping an army, and weeks of
    travel to actually reach any target on foreign soil. ”

    Actually, they had these things called ‘ships’, which had ‘sailors’ on them, and guns and ammunition already loaded. Ordering a naval attack, which is an act of war would have been well within the ability of any president. Very little preparation would have been needed.

    In addition, you seem to be saying that the fact that current-day Presidents have far more ready forces on hand somehow creates a legal or moral right to have a free hand in starting wars. This is simply not true.

    1. “Actually, they had these things called ‘ships’”

      Wrong. The last ship of the Continental Navy was auctioned in 1785; the Constitution was
      adopted in 1787, a time when there was no navy and no ships; the Naval Act of 1794
      created the US Navy (with 6 frigates), some years later.

      In any case, naval warfare in the age of sail involved at least weeks, if not months,
      of preparation and sailing time, even if you had the ships already.

      1. “…the Naval Act of 1794
        created the US Navy (with 6 frigates), some years later. ”

        Now, did the writers of the Constitution figure that there’d be no Navy, or did they figure that one would be built? My money is on the latter, considering that it’s part of the Constitution.

        “In any case, naval warfare in the age of sail involved at least weeks, if not months,
        of preparation and sailing time, even if you had the ships already.”

        Not necessarily; the ships could already be at sea.

        1. “Not necessarily; the ships could already be at sea”.

          And you send them the orders how ? By writing them on paper and sending another
          (possibly slightly faster, but not much) ship after them to deliver the orders.
          A slow process.

          1. “And you send them the orders how ? By writing them on paper and sending another
            (possibly slightly faster, but not much) ship after them to deliver the orders.
            A slow process.”

            No, a rather fast process, depending. And very, very hard to recall.

            And you still haven’t answered my point “In addition, you seem to be saying that the fact that current-day Presidents have far more ready forces on hand somehow creates a legal or moral right to have a free hand in starting wars. This is simply not true.”

          2. It’s not that the C-in-C has “a legal or moral right”. It’s that he issues the orders,
            and under any but the craziest circumstances the military will obey those orders.
            So as a practical matter it’s just awfully simple for the President to start a war.

            You think the Constitution prohibits this. Fine. So tell me who is going to do what,
            and how, to interfere with a President who orders an attack without Congressional
            approval. If that aspect of the Constitution is not enforceable in practice, then
            blustering about it is a waste of time.

        2. I expect the writers of the Constitution probably thought they might
          need to raise a navy in a hurry at some point, just as they had done
          with the Continental Navy; and they probably also thought that when
          they didn’t need a navy, as in 1785, they’d sell off the ships.

          But feel free to present evidence to the contrary.

          Anyhow, from my close reading of many Hornblower books, mostly dealing with
          Royal Navy operations around the same time, it would seem that even the
          nation most dependent on its navy tended, in times of peace, to keep most ships
          in port, in a poor state of repair, and with no crew. Getting from that
          condition to a fully-equipped seaworthy ship with a competent crew was a
          lengthy process.

    2. “In addition, you seem to be saying that the fact that current-day Presidents have far more ready forces on hand somehow creates a legal or moral right to have a free hand in starting wars. This is simply not true.”

      I don’t think it’s a question of “rights” at all. The bottom line is that the President’s C-in-C power
      is very explicit; and in an age when you have a large standing military *and* instantaneous communications,
      the President can issue orders, and have them obeyed, much faster than Congress can do anything about it.

      Then the only recourse for Congress in the event of such a fait accompli is impeachment, which is really
      difficult. So the Constitution is just not very well adapted to modern conditions in this respect
      (and the War Powers Act is not an effective fix).

      1. So, the Constitution is nothing but a quaint and pretty piece of history and our laws are little more than “what you’d call guidelines”? The twists and turn of are history are interesting. All of “tyrannical oppressions” of King George III that supposedly fueled our rebellion pale before what’s done in modern America by our imperial presidency and its “deep state”. Yet somehow the British today enjoy all of the rights the colonists fought to win and more. Maybe we should’ve stayed British—we’d have more freedom, a less powerful monarch and the rule of law would still count for something.

        1. Not what I’m saying at all. The C-in-C power granted in the Constitution is massively
          effective under current conditions; the “power to declare war” is still there, but I think
          it’s up to you to explain what it’s supposed to mean and what Congress, or SCOTUS, is
          supposed to do if they think that power has been abrogated. I would like for there to
          be more constraints on the USA’s ability to start wars, because I think we’ve started far too many
          over the last few decades. But I don’t see that the wording of the constitution offers a practical
          way to achieve that. And for all your bluster, I don’t think you ‘re offering that either.

  19. When it comes to threatening counterproductive violence, the US has credibility to burn. I suggest we burn a tiny bit of it here and skip bombing Syria.

  20. “Force is the only thing these people understand” is, unfortunately, a description of a considerable faction of the Village. Bombing was never, and should never have been, the only option for responding to the use of CW. And just because you change the President and some of his senior advisors, doesn’t mean you changed the culture of the Village, with its decades-long record of being wrong about national security threats, and obsession with ‘credibility’ which is a currency only within the Village and nowhere else.

    Now that we seem to be going with my suggestion (in the other thread) that a punishment be worked out with, and administered by, Russia, I have a second suggestion for a CW sanction: if our intelligence apparatus is worth even half what we are paying for it, it ought to be able to ascertain, by name, every single person involved in the CW attack, top to bottom. I say publish their names, with a paragraph describing exactly what each person did, and all the detail on exactly how we know that the description is correct. (If this compromises sources and methods, so be it — intelligence is only as good as the uses to which it is put.) You want deterrence, one way to get it, and a way that does not involve killing innocent people half a world away, is to exact a price for engaging in the bad behavior. And everyone on that list is going to be wondering when and how the axe is going to fall, whether it’s ICC after the war (or arrest from exile in Turkey), a revenge killing by someone related to a victim, tribunals should the opposition prevail, whatever.

  21. Mark Kleiman: “Given a choice between believing Barack Obama and John Kerry on the one hand or believing Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Rush Limbaugh, and Pam Geller on the other, I’m not likely to hesitate for very long.”

    Mark, this is incredibly bad logic. That’s not the choice on hand. The choice on hand is what to do, not whom to believe. And the choice is not (a) bomb Syria (b) worship Assad.

  22. And as to the supposed deterrent effect of the threat of force, one has to expect that Putin can count the votes in Congress at least as well as I can, and the threat of force was looking decidedly not credible as of this last weekend.

    My guess is that what has happened behind the scenes is that Russia has become convinced that the CW attack really was by the government, either because Assad is unstable or he’s not in complete control of the arsenal. And so the best answer is to take control of the arsenal. And the best time for Russia to do this is to act before the threat of force completely evaporates, as it was about to do.

    I suppose an alternative is that Russia concluded that Assad’s grip on power has become so tenuous — whether because of the civil war or factors internal to the Syrian government — that he really might be toppled by an unimaginably small war (or that, once again, US assurances of a small war were not credible), and so this is the best way to keep the CW arsenal out of the hands of the rebels that they can concoct.

    I like the President as much as the next guy, and am willing to take yes for an answer. Please, though, don’t pee on my leg and tell me that it’s raining.

  23. “I meant simply that the Congress cannot order the President to attack, even by declaring war. The choice still remains in the President’s hands. This is unlike the situation when the Congress appropriates money, which the President is then obliged to spend.”

    This makes no sense at all. The power to order the President to spend money, and the power to order him to wage a war, are both just aspects of the power to enact legislation, which the President is obligated to see faithfully executed.

    So, yes, Congres CAN order a President to attack. He may refuse, and then Congress can impeach or not, but this is not really any different from spending money. The President executes, yes, but he executes laws, which Congress enacts.

    Congress, in the interest of shedding responsiblities that get in the way of rent seeking and graft, has permitted the Presidency to exercise many of it’s own powers. But they are still Congress’ powers, Congress is the policy making body in our government, not the Executive branch.

    1. exchange the word “legislative” for the two words “policy making” in the last sentence and i can pretty much agree with your entire comment. it might not matter to you but that is quite the rare event.

    2. “Congress is the policy making body”

      Well, it isn’t that simple. The Treaty Clause makes it rather clear that the
      President has the primary responsibility for “negotiating treaties” – though
      he needs the consent of a Senate supermajority to ratify them (but the House
      is not involved at all). Take that together with the C-in-C power over the armed
      forces, and it’s pretty clear that the President has the greater share of the
      powers over foreign policy; conversely, on taxing, spending, and domestic
      policy, Congress has the greater powers, while the President still has the veto
      power.

      Now of course the division isn’t so neat as that, since what the President might
      see as a military operation under his C-in-C power, might well be viewed
      by Congress as a massive chunk of spending which can only happen under an
      appropriation bill and subject to Congressional oversight.

      My point is that the technological changes which permit wars to be started at
      very short notice, and sometimes finished within a few days, using only
      already-serving personnel and already-purchased men and supplies, have made
      Congress’ control of appropriations rather ineffective as a restraint on
      the C-in-C. I’m not saying I like it that way; I’m just saying that’s how it is.

    3. “… the power to order him to wage a war … which the President is obligated to see faithfully
      executed”

      You’re reading the Constitution selectively. Congress is given the power to declare war;
      and it is given the power to make laws to regulate the conduct of the army and navy;
      but the President is is given the power of command. Since the Constitution explicitly
      delineates what powers the President and Congress have over the military – Congress regulates,
      but the President commands – it seems to me that a law passed by Congress (presumably
      overriding a veto) ordering the military to make an attack at a particular time and place,
      would be an unconstitutional violation of the President’s command authority, and as such
      invalid.

      As a practical matter, if it doesn’t come through the military chain of command, which
      stops at the President, then I would expect the military to ignore it.

  24. I wonder what Mark is saying in the alternate universe where McCain is serving his second term, and blustering in the same way Obama is here in bizarro world.

  25. “The only thing that stops a bad regime with a WMD arsenal is a good regime with a WMD arsenal!”
    -Wayne A. R. LaPierre

  26. Barack Obama has spent the last two years doing his best to AVOID military involvement in Syria — against the entreaties of, and despite jeers from, the likes of John McCain, I might add. So I dismiss the notion that Obama is at all eager to bomb Assad.

    The US military has a tradition of obeying its commander-in-chief, but it’s silly to pretend that they don’t have their own preferences about which orders he issues. I tend to believe that the current top brass are not gung-ho about bombing Syria. It would not surprise me a bit if they explicitly said, privately: “Mr. President, we really think you should get Congressional authorization for this.”

    “Credibility” is less at stake here than “precedent” IMHO. Asking Congress for authorization is one precedent worth reinforcing. Retaliating against practitioners of poison gas attacks (though not NECESSARILY with military action) is another. American presidents have set lousy precedents on both counts in the past. I see Obama trying to set better precedents than his predecessors have.

    The likeliest outcome right now, I think, is that nothing will come of Putin’s opportunistic posturing, and that Assad will survive in power just like Saddam did after he gassed Kurds and Persians with not even a tsk-tsk from Ronald Reagan. President Obama will make his case to “the nation” again, and still lose the vote in Congress. He may, possibly, seek a non-military form of retaliation against Assad — and who knows: he may find an effective one.

    But if We, The People of the US have already basically decided that we don’t want to set a precedent of retaliating against the perpetrators of atrocities in other parts of the world, then that’s that. If We decide differently when a whiter, more Republican president comes along, then that will be that too. We The People have every right to be fickle, after all.

    –TP

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