KEADY: The half-life of action
Congress’s reticence to approve military action in Syria bolsters the Assad’s power
Although a vote is not likely to occur until next week, it appears that Congress will vote “nay” to military action in Syria. This seems to put the possibility of intervention to an end, since Obama has expressed hesitancy about launching a strike against Syria without Congressional approval. But even if the legislature does approve the use of force in Syria, the public backlash that has already occurred will weaken the strength of any anti-chemical-weapons message that a missile strike would demonstrate.
Public doubt over the use of force strongly contrasts with the certainty and confidence that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have displayed. Both men have stressed the need for retaliation after the alleged use of chemical weapons on the part of the Syrian government, citing the deaths of some 400 children as a basis for military action. While these claims are jarring, they likely will not be sufficient to persuade Congress to permit a military strike. This questioning of military force not only weakens the word of the United States but also weakens the potential impact of an intervention. In this way, Congress’ hand-wringing threatens the State Department’s attempt to send a clear message about the use of chemical weapons — whether lawmakers end up approving military force or not.
This lag in progress toward an attack strengthens the Assad regime’s position and allows it to prepare for a possible strike. While most American observers consider the regime to be totally corrupt, Assad retains support among a consider number of loyalist Syrians and allies. Congress’ unwillingness to intervene may in fact reinforce the belief among regime supporters that the chemical weapons attacks never occurred. Loyalists who dispute the use of chemical weapons may ask why the U.S. would not act, unless it were itself uncertain, given that the U.S. declares over and over that it refuses to stand by as chemical weapons are used.
Indecision in the U.S. also sends a message to the Assad regime that it may do as it pleases. Although Obama and Kerry have unequivocally denounced the chemical weapons attacks, claiming the attacks should “shock the conscience of the world,” it is clear that many Americans are opposed to intervening in another Middle Eastern conflict. The U.S. cannot effectively deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons again when its own legislature is veering to block any move to demonstrate the executive branch’s disapproval via force. Threats of retaliation lose credibility every day they are debated.
Such governmental inconsistencies also demonstrate to Syrian rebels that the U.S. refuses to aid them with boots on the ground. While, troublingly, many of these groups seem to be aided by Al-Qaeda or driven by radical Islam, the U.S. has sent a supportive message to them via an anti-Assad standpoint and a decision to arm pro-democracy fighters. Congressional apprehension surrounding a revenging attack on the rebels’ behalf, particularly in the wake of a chemical weapons attack, is a step backward. Although Congress may not advocate the deployment of American troops on Syrian soil, its seeming reluctance to back Obama’s proposal to intervene sends a message that the U.S. government can issue statements, but cannot back them up. This fact weakens rebel morale.
Prospects are grim for those who think that a U.S. missile strike would deter the Assad regime from attacking its own people, but I do not mean to say that the U.S. should overlook the Congress entirely. Whether Congress weakens the military strike or throws it out entirely, the debate is necessary.
Refusing to intervene sends a message of perhaps abandonment, but a decision to ignore a Congressional vote would send a message of hypocrisy. The Syrian civil war was started by peaceful protest, in hopes of attaining self-government. For Obama to direct a missile strike after the legislative branch voted down the action would undermine the ideals of democracy that the Syrian rebels groups purportedly hold.
The Syrian civil war is indeed a quagmire, and there may be no fully “right” action to take. However, the United States’ threats and condemnations of and against the use of chemical weapons lose believability every day Congress debates. While this delay threatens to undermine the strong stance Obama wishes to take against human-rights violations, it is a consequence of government by the people. The U.S. should demonstrate its condemnation of chemical weapons, but it must only do so if it is the will of the populace, as well as the executive. Without this cooperation, a missile strike will be more damaging than demonstrative.
Walter Keady is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns appear on Tuesdays.