Obama credibility is what's at stake
Given his zig-zag approach, it is worth wondering if President Obama really wants authority from Congress to attack Syria.
The irony of ironies is that the impending debate in Congress about whether to authorize President Obama to punish Syria for using chemical weapons is that it has very little to do with Syria — it's really about Iran.
Obama has repeatedly stated that the United States will not allow the theocrats who rule Iran with an iron hand to obtain a nuclear weapon. Despite the warning and in the face of punishing international economic sanctions, they have taken one step after another in pursuit of that goal. So far, the Iranians have not been intimidated by Obama's declaration, and, after watching him stagger in confusion on Syria, they have to be feeling better and better about the chance that he doesn't have the stomach to back up his words.
It is in that context the congressional debate on Syria will unfold.
Once again, the Middle East is in flames, the result of a misnamed "Arab spring" in which the long-oppressed people in various countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria have moved to overthrow dictators, some of whom were more brutal than others.
Who can forget President Obama demanding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down, only to see him replaced by an elected representative of the Muslim Brotherhood later removed from power in a military coup? Who can forget President Obama eschewing congressional authorization by launching U.S. military force that led to the removal and killing of Libyan dictator Moamar Gadhafi?
Now it's Syria that is in the midst of a brutal civil war, and the rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are no better, and probably worse, than al-Assad himself. Democratic forces who initiated the rebellion against al-Assad have been supplanted by representatives of al-Qaida, the terror group that masterminded the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Obama has stated repeatedly from the beginning that al-Assad must be removed from power. He also warned that if al-Assad used chemical weapons he would be crossing a "red line" that would result in military action by the United States. Not long after Obama issued his warning, Syria is believed to have used chemical weapons, an action Obama ignored.
In the last two weeks, the Syrians are believed to have again crossed Obama's red line, killing thousands of innocents in the process. Secretary of State John Kerry professed to be so outraged that he described al-Assad's action as a "moral obscenity" that could not go unpunished.
Well, so far it has, the result of a last-minute policy switch in which Obama decided not to assert his authority as commander-in-chief, but instead to wait for Congress to return from a summer break to debate and then vote on whether to authorize Obama to use force.
But it's not that simple. How much force is necessary, and for what purpose? Tactics alone are insufficient to achieve a favorable outcome; there also must be a well-conceived strategy that justifies them.
So far, answers have proved elusive.
Obama initially suggested he would fire a shot across the bow to let al-Assad know the U.S. is not pleased by his violations of international norms. But al-Assad already knows that, and Obama's shot across the bow would be a small price to pay. Obama also has suggested he might launch a few missiles to get al-Assad's attention.
Finally, after getting a pep talk from Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, Obama is indicating he'll launch a muscular air attack aimed at causing severe damage to Syria's military capabilities.
But if Obama is too successful in degrading al-Assad's military capability, it could result in the al-Qaida elements taking charge of the country. Do we really want that? It could be Afghanistan, used by al-Qaida as a launching ground for 9/11, all over again.
Further, given the advance warning to Syria, can the United States achieve its military goals? If not, how long does the U.S. keep up the fight? Will the United State still be bombing Syria a year from now? Or will we call off the dogs after a few weeks? If it's the latter, what will Iran think?
Obama has painted himself and his country into a corner. There's no good option here. The only valid reason for Congress to back him on Syria is to try to restore some of the credibility he has squandered. As for re-establishing humanitarian ground rules in the ongoing civil war, that's a lost cause.