Syria’s Sticky Wicket: Congress, Red Lines, and the Bombing of Assad

Let’s stipulate that Secretary of State John Kerry was justified in calling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “a thug and a murderer.”

Let’s also stipulate that the use of chemical weapons on your own people is an act of such barbaric inhumanity as to deserve the worst punishment the civilized world can mete out without losing its humanity. For Saddam Hussein it was being hung by the neck. Thus it should be for Assad.

But we don’t have Assad’s head in a noose and Syria has become a sticky wicket if there ever was one, prompting many to question what the United States should do.

As a constitutional conservative I approve, on principle, congressional approval before striking Assad. However, I disapprove of the manner in which the president is seeking approval.

If the British Parliament had given David Cameron the go-ahead to back Obama’s red line and bomb Assad then he wouldn’t be going to Congress. The same is true if the UN Security Council and/or the Arab League had supported him.

Obama’s head nod to Congress is for political cover, not because he reread Article I, section 8 and suddenly realized we’re a constitutional republic. Call me cynical, but Obama’s rhetoric for the past eighteen month has shown he’d go it alone—even without Congress—until it looked like he’d actually have to go it alone.

But whether alone or in concert with Congress, the president isn’t in any hurry to get anything done in Syria. He allowed the secretary of state to make a strong statement on Friday afternoon (August 29); a statement that telescoped the very real possibility of imminent action. Then the president cut the legs out from under Kerry just hours later when he decided to toss the ball to Congress.

Fine. Reasonable people can disagree on the best course of action on difficult questions. Reasonable people can also change their minds. But instead of calling Congress back in to immediate session, which the president has constitutional authority to do, Obama made it known, at his Saturday speech in the Rose Garden, that Congress could take up the matter after its summer break . . . in nine days!

It’s more than congressional delay that’s troubling here — so is the timing of the announcement.

The president leaves for Sweden and Russia Tuesday evening (September 3) and doesn’t return until just before September 11. Public attention will shift away from Syria and refocus on the Libya fiasco of a year ago, and on the twelfth anniversary of 9/11.

And Obama can hardly exert political pressure on Congress while out of the country, not when his presence is needed to persuade fence sitting Democrats. And before you know it, October 1 will roll around, when ObamaCare is to become fully effective. The Syrian red line question may not become settled in Congress until well into September or early October.

Hardly the vigorous, aggressive, heroic action Secretary Kerry called for on Friday against the thuggish and murderous Assad.

And I think that’s just the way Obama wants it. He wants to pass Syria off to Congress so he can blame them for delaying or for voting him down. And then he’ll hang it around their necks at the midterm elections.

Yet, by any measure, the President is the one who dithered on Syria—dithered to such an extent that his red line painted us into a corner so tight to leave us no maneuvering room. He put the U.S. credibility in a virtual no-win situation, unless he can thread a needle with a cruise missile.

A year ago, when the rebels in Syria were calling for American arms and material, and calling on the international community to declare and patrol a no-fly zone, the president merely proclaimed that if Assad used chemical weapons he would have crossed a red line. At that time—and even a year before, in 2011—if the president wanted, as he claimed, Assad gone from power he would have supported the Syrian opposition.

If Obama had aided the opposition, Assad may well have been on his way out of power, if not actually removed, and may have never used chemical weapons. Throughout 2011 and most of 2012 rebel militias were composed of secular and moderate muslims. That’s not the case today.

Today the opposition has been infiltrated and taken over by Islamists affiliated with al-Qaeda, leading to disquieting questions.

  • If we strike too hard and significantly upset the balance of power, have we told the world we’re with the terrorist opposition?
  • If our actions were aggressive enough to topple Assad, what do we do when those same chemical stockpiles end up in the hands of jihadists?
  • If we do nothing does America appear, in the eyes of the world—and more importantly in the eyes of Israel and a nuclear threatening Iran—powerless?
  • If Obama were to lose this vote in Congress what would that say to our allies and NATO?

It seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. And we can thank the president’s feckless arrogance and naiveté for that.

In general, members of Congress and world leaders have already made up their minds about President Obama—he’s all bluster. Only the weak and timid blow and bray. The strong can speak softly because they carry a big stick.

So, whether Obama receives congressional approval or not, at this point, if a strike comes, it’ll be more to announce to the world that he isn’t a whip, not that America is strong.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter. If you like this article you can find others like it at, where you will also find information about my books, including O America! A Manifesto on Liberty.

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