Kurt Mitman | Unilaterally ending unilateralism
Obama is doing his job with Syria
September 11, 2013, 4:10 pm · Updated September 12, 2013, 11:48 pm·
Sorry to be Kurt
If you tuned in to President Obama’s Tuesday evening address on Syria, you might have thought a completely different Obama was talking.
During his address on the ongoing conflict in Syria, Obama asked for more time to explore a diplomatic solution, whereas the conventional wisdom was that he would continue his rhetoric from the past weeks — a call to arms.
President Obama has been both lauded and panned for how he’s attempted to build a case for airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that it used chemical weapons against its own citizens.
The president’s supporters have applauded his efforts to build consensus in Congress and to seek a resolution to be passed authorizing military support before making any intervention. Meanwhile, his hawkish critics have said that by seeking the approval of Congress, the president is displaying weakness and indecisiveness.
The president’s actions have been further complicated by an offhand proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin at last week’s G8 summit.
When it appeared that military action against Syria was imminent one week ago, Putin proffered a solution that could avoid any military intervention: have Syrian President Assad turn over his chemical weapons to the international community.
The president has embraced the proposal, much to the chagrin of supporters of military action — Senator John McCain has blasted the President and called Putin’s proposal a stall tactic.
So should we praise or criticize the president for working with Congress? And what about entertaining Putin’s proposal?
To address the first question, we really have to ask ourselves, should we be getting excited that our president is actually following the law?
Under the War Powers Act, consulting Congress is exactly what the president should be doing if he were to seek military action against Syria. The president is only allowed to send our troops into “hostilities” after: “(1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
Clearly, the situation in Syria does not satisfy the third criteria, where the president would require a declaration of war (something that hasn’t happened since WWII) or statutory authorization to send in military forces.
Do we praise the president when he submits a nominee for Senate confirmation in lieu of trying to use a recess appointment? No. We generally don’t criticize or applaud people for doing what they’re supposed to do.
Are we so jaded after years of war and the expansion of executive power under previous administrations that when the president doesn’t act unilaterally we get all excited? We’ve reached a pretty sad state of affairs in this country if that’s the case.
For the second question, is actually seeking a diplomatic solution to the problem in Syria the wrong thing to do?
To the foreign policy elite in Washington, it might certainly seem so. For 20 years we’ve operated under a regime of unilateralism, where we acted as we pleased, damned the consequences. So any deviation from more of the same probably smells like weakness.
But look at where that has gotten us over the last two decades. From air strikes in Kosovo to the war in Iraq to Libya, were we better off as a result? I would say no.
The situation in Syria is deplorable at best. But we should seek an international solution brokered through the United Nations instead of launching air strikes against the Assad regime unilaterally. Achieving detente with Russia outweighs the benefits of having the “moral high ground” for attacking Assad.
Amidst all of the noise coming from the talking heads in Washington, a bigger point has largely been ignored — Obama is weighing whether as a nation we will continue to take unilateral military action against foreign states or return to the Desert Storm era where military action — if it came to that — was led under the United Nations’ flag.
The president doesn’t deserve praise for following the War Powers Act, and he doesn’t deserve criticism for hearing out Putin. He does deserve praise for trying to realign foreign policy away from unilateralism, and he does deserve criticism for failing to communicate that point more clearly.
Kurt Mitman is a 7th-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” appears every Friday.