President Obama is an uncommonly gifted rhetorician, especially on domestic issues. On international issues, however, his smooth talk has caused severe damage to American credibility. Congress should not make things worse by endorsing his proposed attack on Syria over Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. And Congress should also seek, in every way possible, to limit any further damage Obama might do overseas between now and the end of his tenure in the Oval Office.
By way of background, recall Obama’s hushed conversation in May 2012 with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Seoul, South Korea. Obama said “this will be my last election” and “after the election, I will have more flexibility.” That was Obama’s way of telling the Russians that he would have a free hand in foreign affairs once he was returned to office.
Obama’s actions on Syria clearly demonstrate what he means by “flexibility.” A year ago he threatened "enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons" — crossing his vaunted "red line." Obama appeared set to make good on his threat and to do so without prior congressional consent. But when the British parliament rejected military action and polls showed that the American people strongly opposed it, too, Obama flexibly reversed himself and proclaimed his desire for a full congressional debate, even as he reminded everybody that he could still order the U.S. military into combat whatever Congress decided.
In other words, the kabuki resolution authorizing “limited” strikes and barring U.S. ground forces from Syrian operations is meaningless. He will surely interpret a congressional vote of approval, no matter how narrow, as freeing him to do whatever he wants in Syria. This would be a prescription for disaster.
With Obama talking about the issue for weeks, Assad has had plenty of time to secure his military assets against U.S. attack. The U.S. could hit Syria's six major airfields and perhaps air control facilities, inhibiting Assad's ability to deliver chemical weapons from the air but not preventing him from attacking rebel forces and civilians with artillery shells armed with poison gas. Without boots on the ground, the U.S. has no way of securing Syria's chemical stores.
That would require 75,000 American troops and many months, according to an estimate by the Department of Defense, and inevitably lead to chaos and bloodshed in the region. Neither Obama nor the American people are ready for that sort of quagmire.