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Obama to Congress: Thanks for sharing

President Obama brilliantly undercut his critics by insisting congress authorize the use of military force against Syria

Earlier, he’d decided the US had to respond militarily, in a limited way, to Bashar Assad’s use of poison gas against civilians. Maybe he couldn’t stand being reminded that he had warned that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be, for him, the crossing of a “red line” – one that, presumably, would trigger military consequences. Maybe he was stung by the many accusations that he’s unable to make big military decisions, one pundit going so far as to label him America’s “Avoider-in-Chief.” Maybe he was tired of being accused of being able to only “lead from behind.” Clearly, he had to act, even if it was against his grain.

But then he pulled a rabbit out of America’s democratic hat. By saying he’d act only with congressional authorization, he instantly shared the risk. He realized that if Congress would yes and another Iraq ensues, then that body would share the blame. And if Congress would say no and Syria again used chemical weapons – and if American credibility were so degraded that no American warnings, even against the Iranian production of nuclear weapons, could be believed – then Congress would again share the blame. He won – but only by a close vote – early support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a limited strike. Support by the full Senate is uncertain. Even more uncertain is support from the House of Representatives. Members of Congress, boxed in by the President, are realizing that, the burden is now on them no less than it seemed to be only on him. Suddenly they have to think about options, consequences and scenarios that they never had to consider. Back in session, they’re faced with dilemmas they don’t understand and that cross party lines. Early counts suggest that Obama won’t get the authorization for which he’s suddenly seeking with a full-court press.

When it looked like Obama was going to make the decision himself, I felt for him. The possible scenarios of success and failure are so many, weighty and unpredictable that I couldn’t see how he could proceed in a rational way. He’s had a long time to consider those scenarios, and knows that there are others he can’t even imagine. Even chess-champion supercomputers, with all the time in the world, and programmed with the best information available, wouldn’t be able to conclude which response would be best. And now members of Congress, whose chess-mastery hasn’t always been computer-like, whose votes will be known, and who have even less time than he had to consider the possible consequences of their votes, will have to sort through the myriad scenarios as well. They’d better start sorting right away.

It would be sobering if they started with even a few possible consequences of an initially limited American military response to Assad’s chemical butchery, which most of the world has agreed is beyond the pale of acceptable war. Here’s one scenario–one of many:

With Congressional authorization, the President orders a very limited response–two days of cruise-missile strikes against Syrian command-and-control centers from destroyers in the Mediterranean. Their aim is to show that his “red line” against the use of poison gas was a credible commitment that’s shared by both the President and Congress, and that the other commitments that have been made, such as ones about Iran’s nuclear program, is no less credible.

As it has been promising for weeks should the US attack Syria, even in a limited way, Iran mobilizes a response, first of all against Israel. By Hezbollah: Tens of thousands of conventional rockets are shot into Haifa, Tel Aviv, the heavily populated Israeli coastal plain, West Jerusalem. By Syria: Thousands of rockets, some containing poison gas, are shot into all of those places. By Iranian forces: Hundreds of rockets, some carrying poison gas, are launched at the same time. Scores of thousands of Israelis are killed.

Israel bombs Syria and Hezbollah, and sends planes with bunker-busting bombs into Iran to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel may seriously damage installations in Syria and Lebanon, but doesn’t have the ordnance or capacity needed to destroy Iran’s deeply-dug nuclear facilities. Military facilities are blown up, but thousands of Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian civilians are killed—especially in Lebanon, where rocket launchers are placed in schools, mosques and hospitals to use children and other civilians as human shields. The use of poison gas especially enrages Israel, which recalls the murder of millions of Jews by gas during the Holocaust, and provokes it to do all it can to prevent what Israel sees as a “second Holocaust,” this time a nuclear one by Iran. It knows, though, that, given its limitations, it’s simply unable to do that.

An even more enraged Iran activates sleeper-cells in the US and Europe. Explosives and chemical weapons blow up in subway stations in New York, Washington, Paris and London. Tens of thousands of civilians are killed, dwarfing the number killed in New York on 9/11.

The US launches planes from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and from bases in the US, Turkey and other sites. Some drop bombs on Syria. And some drop serious bunker-busting bombs on Iranian nuclear installations that do far more damage than Israel could possibly do. Most Iranian nuclear facilities are obliterated, but some are either unknown or impervious. Thousands of Syrian and Iranian military personnel, as well as thousands of civilians, are killed.

Syrian government forces may or may not be destabilized enough to allow rebel forces to take over the country. Some of those forces are affiliates of Al Qaeda. Many more radical forces rush into Syria. Iran continues to organize attacks by Hezbollah against Israel, and continues to order terror operations in the US and Europe. Many more tens of thousands of Israelis, Americans and Europeans are killed. The strikes against Syria, but also Iran, go on, even without any American or European “boots on the ground.”

This is only one possible scenario following even a US response by cruise missiles meant initially to last only a few days. Dozens or hundreds of other scenarios are possible, most of them resulting in thousands of persons in many countries killed or maimed. As Congress debates whether or not it should authorize the President to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, each member should be thinking through each of these scenarios—not only the one above but many alternative ones, each of them with multiple variations.

But there are dozens of scenarios that could follow the decision to not authorize the President’s response to Syria’s use of gas. Some of these are even worse than the one I just described.

They include, for example, in months or a year, the launching of nuclear-tipped missiles by an Iran emboldened by the lack of an American response to Syria’s use poison gas. Such a scenario could result not in tens of thousands of deaths but many millions. It would be a Holocaust not only of the Jews in Israel but also of many other populations in the Middle East and even in America and Europe. In such a horrific circumstance, Israel could retaliate against Iran, refusing to go “like sheep to the slaughter,” and ordering its nuclear-missile-armed Dolphin-class submarines, in the waters off Iran, to destroy that country’s cities, multiplying the death-toll many fold.

Or Assad, seeing that the US didn’t respond when it crossed Obama’s “red line” the first time, could resume poison gas attacks until Congress, outraged, votes again, this time to authorize an attack on Syria that’s sustained and robust, which is even more likely to provoke a cascade of responses like the ones described above.

Because of President Obama’s politically-brilliant decision to share responsibility for military action with Congress, the legislative branch got the wish it had hoped for—but also the responsibility. Now there will be plenty of people to praise if America’s response or non-response proves wise. And plenty to blame if either course of action doesn’t.

Welcome to democracy. Welcome to politics. And welcome to the unpredictable consequences of military action. “Thanks,” the President must be saying to Congress in his head—“thanks for sharing.”

About the Author
Walter Reich is the Yitzhak Rabin Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior, and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, at George Washington University. He is also a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.