Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking. On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines. Yet Barack Obama chose Labour Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.
In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated US attack against Syria. Obama hadn't, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the US would "go it alone" in punishing Bashar al-Assad's regime for its bad behaviour. Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of "the world's oldest constitutional democracy," he had decided to seek Congressional authorisation before proceeding.
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Obama thereby brought to a screeching halt a process extending back over six decades in which successive inhabitants of the Oval Office had arrogated to themselves (or had thrust upon them) ever wider prerogatives in deciding when and against whom the United States should wage war. Here was one point on which every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush had agreed: on matters related to national security, the authority of the commander-in-chief has no fixed limits. When it comes to keeping the country safe and securing its vital interests, presidents can do pretty much whatever they see fit.
Here, by no means incidentally, lies the ultimate the source of the stature and prestige that defines the imperial presidency and thereby shapes (or distorts) the American political system. Sure, the quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are classy, but what really endowed the postwar war presidency with its singular aura were the missiles, bombers, and carrier battle groups that responded to the commands of one man alone. What's the bully pulpit in comparison to having the 82nd Airborne and SEAL Team Six at your beck and call?
Now, in effect, Obama was saying to Congress: I'm keen to launch a war of choice. But first I want you guys to okay it. In politics, where voluntarily forfeiting power is an unnatural act, Obama's invitation qualifies as beyond unusual. Whatever the calculations behind his move, its effect rates somewhere between unprecedented and positively bizarre - the heir to imperial prerogatives acting, well, decidedly unimperial.
Obama is a constitutional lawyer, of course, and it's pleasant to imagine that he acted out of due regard for what Article 1, Section 8, of that document plainly states, namely that "the Congress shall have power…to declare war." Take his explanation at face value and the president's decision ought to earn plaudits from strict constructionists across the land. The Federalist Society should offer Obama an honorary lifetime membership.
Of course, seasoned political observers, understandably steeped in cynicism, dismissed the president's professed rationale out of hand and immediately began speculating about his actual motivation. The most popular explanation was this: having painted himself into a corner, Obama was trying to lure members of the legislative branch into joining him there. Rather than a belated conversion experience, the president's literal reading of the Constitution actually amounted to a sneaky political ruse.
After all, the president had gotten himself into a pickle by declaring back in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad would cross a supposedly game-changing "red line." When the Syrians (apparently) called his bluff, Obama found himself facing uniformly unattractive military options that ranged from the patently risky - joining forces with the militants intent on toppling Assad - to the patently pointless - firing a "shot across the bow" of the Syrian ship of state.
Meanwhile, the broader American public, awakening from its summertime snooze, was demonstrating remarkably little enthusiasm for yet another armed intervention in the Middle East. Making matters worse still, US military leaders and many members of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were expressing serious reservations or actual opposition. Press reports even cited leaks by unnamed officials who characterised the intelligence linking Assad to the chemical attacks as no "slam dunk," a painful reminder of how bogus information had paved the way for the disastrous and unnecessary Iraq War. For the White House, even a hint that Obama in 2013 might be replaying the Bush scenario of 2003 was anathema.
The president also discovered that recruiting allies to join him in this venture was proving a hard sell. It wasn't just the Arab League's refusal to give an administration strike against Syria its seal of approval, although that was bad enough. Jordan's King Abdullah, America's "closest ally in the Arab world," publicly announced that he favoured talking to Syria rather than bombing it. As for Iraq, that previous beneficiary of American liberation, its government was refusing even to allow US forces access to its airspace. Ingrates!
For Obama, the last straw may have come when America's most reliable (not to say subservient) European partner refused to enlist in yet another crusade to advance the cause of peace, freedom, and human rights in the Middle East. With memories of Tony and George W. apparently eclipsing those of Winston and Franklin, the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's attempt to position the United Kingdom alongside the United States. Parliament's vote dashed Obama's hopes of forging a coalition of two and so investing a war of choice against Syria with at least a modicum of legitimacy.
When it comes to actual military action, only France still entertains the possibility of making common cause with the United States. Yet the number of Americans taking assurance from this prospect approximates the number who know that Bernard-Henri Lévy isn't a celebrity chef.
John F. Kennedy once remarked that defeat is an orphan. Here was a war bereft of parents even before it had begun.
The War for the greater Middle East
Still, whether high-minded constitutional considerations or diabolically clever political machinations motivated the president may matter less than what happens next. Obama lobbed the ball into Congress's end of the court. What remains to be seen is how the House and the Senate, just now coming back into session, will respond.
At least two possibilities exist, one with implications that could prove profound and the second holding the promise of being vastly entertaining.
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On the one hand, Obama has implicitly opened the door for a Great Debate regarding the trajectory of US policy in the Middle East. Although a week or ten days from now the Senate and House of Representatives will likely be voting to approve or reject some version of an Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), at stake is much more than the question of what to do about Syria. The real issue - Americans should hope that the forthcoming congressional debate makes this explicit - concerns the advisability of continuing to rely on military might as the preferred means of advancing US interests in this part of the world.
Appreciating the actual stakes requires putting the present crisis in a broader context. Herewith an abbreviated history lesson.
Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would employ any means necessary to prevent a hostile power from gaining control of the Persian Gulf. In retrospect, it's clear enough that the promulgation of the so-called Carter Doctrine amounted to a de facto presidential "declaration" of war (even if Carter himself did not consciously intend to commit the United States to perpetual armed conflict in the region). Certainly, what followed was a never-ending sequence of wars and war-like episodes. Although the Congress never formally endorsed Carter's declaration, it tacitly acceded to all that his commitment subsequently entailed.
Relatively modest in its initial formulation, the Carter Doctrine quickly metastasised. Geographically, it grew far beyond the bounds of the Persian Gulf, eventually encompassing virtually all of the Islamic world. Washington's own ambitions in the region also soared. Rather than merely preventing a hostile power from achieving dominance in the Gulf, the United States was soon seeking to achieve dominance itself. Dominance - that is, shaping the course of events to Washington's liking - was said to hold the key to maintaining stability, ensuring access to the world's most important energy reserves, checking the spread of Islamic radicalism, combating terrorism, fostering Israel's security, and promoting American values. Through the adroit use of military might, dominance actually seemed plausible. (So at least Washington persuaded itself.)
What this meant in practice was the wholesale militarisation of US policy toward the Greater Middle East in a period in which Washington's infatuation with military power was reaching its zenith. As the Cold War wound down, the national security apparatus shifted its focus from defending Germany's Fulda Gap to projecting military power throughout the Islamic world. In practical terms, this shift found expression in the creation of Central Command (CENTCOM), reconfigured forces, and an eternal round of contingency planning, war plans, and military exercises in the region. To lay the basis for the actual commitment of troops, the Pentagon established military bases, stockpiled material in forward locations, and negotiated transit rights. It also courted and armed proxies. In essence, the Carter Doctrine provided the Pentagon (along with various US intelligence agencies) with a rationale for honing and then exercising new capabilities.
Capabilities expanded the range of policy options. Options offered opportunities to "do something" in response to crisis. From the Reagan era on, policymakers seized upon those opportunities with alacrity. A seemingly endless series of episodes and incidents ensued, as US forces, covert operatives, or proxies engaged in hostile actions (often on multiple occasions) in Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, the southern Philippines, and in the Persian Gulf itself, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider them altogether and what you have is a War for the Greater Middle East, pursued by the United States for over three decades now. If Congress gives President Obama the green light, Syria will become the latest front in this ongoing enterprise.
Profiles in courage? If only
A debate over the Syrian AUMF should encourage members of Congress - if they've got the guts - to survey this entire record of U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East going back to 1980. To do so means almost unavoidably confronting this simple question: How are we doing? To state the matter directly, all these years later, given all the ordnance expended, all the toing-and-froing of US forces, and all the lives lost or shattered along the way, is mission accomplishment anywhere insight? Or have US troops - the objects of such putative love and admiration on the part of the American people - been engaged over the past 30-plus years in a fool's errand? How members cast their votes on the Syrian AUMF will signal their answer - and by extension the nation's answer - to that question.
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To okay an attack on Syria will, in effect, reaffirm the Carter Doctrine and put a stamp of congressional approval on the policies that got us where we are today. A majority vote in favour of the Syrian AUMF will sustain and probably deepen Washington's insistence that the resort to violence represents the best way to advance US interests in the Islamic world. From this perspective, all we need to do is try harder and eventually we'll achieve a favourable outcome. With Syria presumably the elusive but never quite attained turning point, the Greater Middle East will stabilise. Democracy will flourish. And the United States will bask in the appreciation of those we have freed from tyranny.
To vote against the AUMF, on the other hand, will draw a red line of much greater significance than the one that President Obama himself so casually laid down. Should the majority in either House reject the Syrian AUMF, the vote will call into question the continued viability of the Carter Doctrine and all that followed in its wake.
It will create space to ask whether having another go is likely to produce an outcome any different from what the United States has achieved in the myriad places throughout the Greater Middle East where US forces (or covert operatives) have, whatever their intentions, spent the past several decades wreaking havoc and sowing chaos under the guise of doing good. Instead of offering more of the same - does anyone seriously think that ousting Assad will transform Syria into an Arab Switzerland? - rejecting the AUMF might even invite the possibility of charting an altogether different course, entailing perhaps a lower military profile and greater self-restraint.
What a stirring prospect! Imagine members of Congress setting aside partisan concerns to debate first-order questions of policy. Imagine them putting the interests of the country in front of their own worries about winning reelection or pursuing their political ambitions. It would be like Lincoln vs. Douglas or Woodrow Wilson vs. Henry Cabot Lodge. Call Doris Kearns Goodwin. Call Spielberg or Sorkin. Get me Capra, for God's sake. We're talking high drama of blockbuster proportions.
On the other hand, given the record of the recent past, we should hardly discount the possibility that our legislative representatives will not rise to the occasion. Invited by President Obama to share in the responsibility for deciding whether and where to commit acts of war, one or both Houses - not known these days for displaying either courage or responsibility - may choose instead to punt.
As we have learned by now, the possible ways for Congress to shirk its duty are legion. In this instance, all are likely to begin with the common supposition that nothing's at stake here except responding to Assad's alleged misdeeds. To refuse to place the Syrian crisis in any larger context is, of course, a dodge. Yet that dodge creates multiple opportunities for our elected representatives to let themselves off the hook.
Congress could, for example, pass a narrowly drawn resolution authorising Obama to fire his "shot across the bow" and no more. In other words, it could basically endorse the president's inclination to substitute gesture for policy.
Or it could approve a broadly drawn, but vacuous resolution, handing the president a blank check. Ample precedent exists for that approach, since it more or less describes what Congress did in 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, opening the way to presidential escalation in Vietnam, or with the AUMF it passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, giving George W. Bush's administration permission to do more or less anything it wanted to just about anyone.
Even more irresponsibly, Congress could simply reject any Syrian AUMF, however worded, without identifying a plausible alternative to war, in effect washing its hands of the matter and creating a policy vacuum.
Will members of the Senate and the House grasp the opportunity to undertake an urgently needed reassessment of America's War for the Greater Middle East? Or wriggling and squirming, will they inelegantly sidestep the issue, opting for short-term expediency in place of serious governance? In an age where the numbing blather of McCain, McConnell, and Reid have replaced the oratory of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, merely to pose the question is to answer it.
But let us not overlook the entertainment value of such an outcome, which could well be formidable. In all likelihood, high comedy Washington-style lurks just around the corner. So renew that subscription to The Onion. Keep an eye on Doonesbury. Set the TiVo to record Jon Stewart. This is going to be really funny - and utterly pathetic. Where's H.L. Mencken when we need him?
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of the new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (Metropolitan Books).
A version of this article first appeared on TomDispath.com
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.