Tag: Syria

The Senate’s Draft AUMF: Don’t Fix What the President Shouldn’t Have

Yesterday, I commented on the strikingly broad authority the Obama administration proposed in its draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria, and argued that Senate leaders’ attempts to narrow the proposed authorization were misguided: “Congress shouldn’t ‘fix’ what the president shouldn’t have.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s revised AUMF, released this morning, hasn’t changed my mind. 

  • They’ve added some adjectives to the operative clause, authorizing the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner” (bespoke airstrikes?) against “legitimate military targets,” and tightened the stated goals somewhat. But again “he determines” whether those conditions have been met. 
  • Worst of all, despite purporting to bar “the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations” (Sec. 3) and limit airstrikes to targets “in Syria,” (Sec. 2(a)), the draft (unwittingly?) undermines those restrictions at the outset. The revised AUMF gives away the game in the last clause of Section 1 with a gratuitous and overbroad concession about the scope of the president’s authority to use force without congressional authorization: “the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States.” That’s far broader than the WPR’s description of the president’s independent constitutional authority to take action in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States… or its armed forces”–and broader than the original understanding that the president retained the power to “repel sudden attacks.” The language in the Commitee’s draft AUMF implicitly endorses a power to launch sudden attacks when the president deems them in “the national security interests of the United States.” 

Former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith calls it “the broadest such clause I have ever seen”–“the draft AUMF enhances, through congressional recognition, the President’s claims of independent constitutional authority to use force in Syria.” Coupled with other provisions in Section 1 affirming that Syria’s possession and use of unconventional weapons “constitute a grave threat to … the national security interests of the United States,”–that phrase again–it gives President Obama additional cover to go beyond what’s authorized in the resolution–flouting the time limits, introducing ground troops, striking targets outside of Syria, and the like.

Goldsmith sums up: “If the Senate draft becomes law, the President should be very pleased.” Americans, who are rightly sick of Middle Eastern entanglements and Tomahawk humanitarianism, will likely have a very different view  

Accurately Predicting the Potential Costs of War in Syria

On July 19, 2013, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to Sen. Carl Levin detailing the costs of various military options in Syria. Dempsey also explained the purpose of the cost-estimating exercise. “The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our Nation entrusts to its civilian leaders,” the general wrote to the Chair of the Senate Armed Serves Committee. “I also understand that you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.” (emphasis in original)

To train and assist the Syrian rebels would cost U.S. taxpayers $500 million, and the costs only increase from there. Gen. Dempsey estimated a no-fly zone will cost “$500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month.” Establishing a buffer zone where opposition forces could organize and train would require a limited no-fly zone, which, when “coupled with U.S. ground forces would push the costs over one billion per month.”

A mission to control chemical weapons in Syria would involve “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces…Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month.”

Even if the U.S. limits the mission to missile strikes against Syrian targets, the costs would “be in the billions.”

But the real unknown is the costs that could accumulate if the civil war deepens, including possibly after Assad’s ouster. Dempsey didn’t attempt to estimate the costs to U.S. taxpayers if the U.S. military becomes involved in such circumstances. He did recommend, however, that “we must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our actions,” and he warned that “we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

On Syria, Attention Shifts to Congress

President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek authorization from Congress before ordering attacks on Syria has elicited speculation about what motivated this apparent change of heart. After all, the president didn’t seek Congress’s approval before ordering attacks against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya in March 2011. Back then, members of the administration claimederroneously, as Louis Fisher points out here (.pdf)that they had all the authority they needed from UN Security Council resolution 1973It was a very thin reed on which to build a case for war, but administration officials teamed up with hawks on both the left and right to turn aside the objections of dovish Democrats and “Kucinich Republicans,” as the Wall Street Journal’s editors called them.

Obama couldn’t shelter behind the UN this time around, and Congressional opposition arose much faster and stronger than I anticipated as recently as last week. Even some Democrats, most notably Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine, voiced concern about the president’s apparent intention to circumvent the people’s elected representatives. The British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for air strikes was a further blow, both in that it denied the United States a credible ally (only France remains), and highlighted the uncomfortable fact that most democracies have a debate before going to war. 

So now the attention turns to Congress, with many members still on recess, but a number returning early to Capitol Hill for briefings and hearings. Those handicapping the sentiment in Congress claim that the president lacks the votes today to secure a victory, but he has a full week to change minds and twist arms. Some of the 190+ members who signed at least one of two letters, or issued a statement, calling on the president to go to Congress before launching an attack will be satisfied to have been included in the process. Sen. Kaine expressed this sentiment today. Party leaders may not whip the vote, but Obama will be assisted by the pro-intervention chorus, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and by the signatories to this letter issued last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative. The pro-Obama team will include an unlikely ally: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who declared last night on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that a vote against Obama would be effectively a vote for Assad. There will be more of this in the week ahead.

It will be hard for the opponents of intervention in Syria to prevail given that many Democrats can be expected to side with the president, and a number of Republicans still prefer the interventionists’ talking points, even if they know they are unpopular back home. 

Troubled Currencies Project Update: Syria, Iran, and Egypt

Syria Since August 26,  when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began laying the groundwork for military intervention in Syria, the Syrian pound (SYP) has taken a beating on the black market. Indeed, the SYP has lost 24.07 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar (USD) in the two days since Kerry’s announcement. Currently, the exchange rate sits at 270 SYP/USD, yielding an implied annual inflation rate of 291.88 percent. In countries with troubled currencies, there is no better measure of economic expectations than the black-market exchange rate. The recent deterioration in the SYP/USD exchange rate clearly indicates that Syrians are anticipating Western military intervention in the near term. 

IranThe initial weeks of the Rouhani presidency have seen renewed economic confidence, as reflected by the Iranian rial’s (IRR) black-market exchange rate. The new central bank governor, Valiollah Seif, has stated that his primary concerns are to rein in inflation and boost economic stability. Over the past few weeks, the rial has strengthened on the black-market, and inflation has moderated somewhat. That said, recent international saber-rattling over Syria clearly has spooked the Iranian public. In the two days since Secretary Kerry first made his case for intervention in Syria, the value of the Iranian rial has dropped 4.74 percent on the black market, to 32,700 IRR/USD. This yields an implied annual inflation rate of 52.10 percent, up from 44.89 percent, prior to Kerry’s announcement.

EgyptSince the fall of the Morsi government, public confidence and support for the military regime has boosted the value of the Egyptian pound (EGP). Prior to the military takeover, the black-market exchange rate sat at 7.6 EGP/USD. Since Morsi’s ouster, the pound has appreciated by 7.34 percent, to 7.08 EGP/USD. This yields a current implied annual inflation rate of 18.62 percent, down from 27.85 percent in the final days of the Morsi government. In recent weeks, the Central Bank has been auctioning off up to $40 million in foreign exchange, three times per week. This rather modest sum has adequately met the demand for foreign exchange at rates close to the official exchange rate of 6.99 EGP/USD.

 

For more information on troubled currencies in these countries and others, see The Troubled Currencies Project.

Resisting the Calls for Action in Syria

After months of hand-wringing, the Obama administration appears poised to intervene militarily in Syria. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry cited clear evidence of chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and pledged that the United States would hold Assad accountable for a “moral obscenity.” Others have chimed in this morning in agreement. The editorial writers at USA Today declare that Assad’s action “demands” a “precise strike” in response.

As I explain in an “opposing view”:

The desire to “do something” in Syria is understandable. The gut-wrenching images of the dead, including the young, have rocketed around the world. To casual observers, it seems obvious that a country as rich and militarily powerful as the United States must be able to stop the violence.

But the truth is that not even the United States can solve Syria’s problems.

The American public remains strongly opposed to military intervention of any type, and the people’s representatives in Congress generally reflect these sentiments. Unfortunately, presidents can, and usually do, ignore the public’s wishes. President Obama, following the example of his predecessors, has undertaken numerous military operations without securing congressional approval, and he has done so even in the face of clear and bipartisan opposition. (Libya, for example).

A few on Capitol Hill will occasionally complain, as some did yesterday, but a groundswell among members of Congress to affirm their constitutional responsibilities is unlikely, and certainly won’t happen quickly enough to halt what appears to be imminent military action.

But the strongest reason why President Obama should ignore the voices calling for military action is because such intervention is unlikely to achieve anything constructive, and may well do great harm. While the president has the ability to launch air attacks, he is unable to affect the political realities on the ground in Syria that have sustained a brutal and bloody civil war for nearly two and a half years.

Learning to Leave Bad Enough Alone: Washington’s Clumsy Meddling in Fragile Countries

U.S. officials too often succumb to the temptation to try to impose order and justice in unstable or misgoverned societies around the world. The temptation is understandable. It is hard to learn about—much less watch on the nightly news—brutality, bloodshed, and gross injustice and not want to do something about it. Some foreign policy intellectuals, including the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have become strident lobbyists for the notion of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations.

But it is a temptation that wise policy makers should avoid. U.S. meddling has frequently caused already bad situations to deteriorate further—especially when Washington has based its humanitarian interventions on the false premise that the subject of our attentions is, or at least ought to be, a coherent nation state. As I point out in an article over at The National Interest, U.S. administrations have made that blunder in Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, and other places.

In many parts of the world, the Western concept of a nation state is quite weak, and the concepts of democracy and individual rights are even less developed. The primary loyalty of an inhabitant is likely to be to a clan, tribe, ethnic group or religion. U.S. officials appear to have difficulty grasping that point, and as a result, the United States barges into fragile societies, disrupting what modest order may exist. Washington’s military interventions flail about, shattering delicate political and social connections and disrupting domestic balances of power.

An especially naive and pernicious U.S. habit has been to try to midwife a strong national government in client states when the real power and cohesion lies at the local or subregional level. Thus, Washington still insists on keeping the chronically dysfunctional pretend country of Bosnia intact and on international life support more than 17 years after imposing the Dayton peace accords that ended the fighting there. Similarly, the United States harbored the illusion that Hamid Karzai could run a strong, pro-Western, democratic Afghan central government from Kabul, and even Karzai’s ineptitude and extensive misdeeds have not entirely dispelled that notion. In both cases, the national cohesion, underlying democratic values, and strong civil societies needed for such a scheme to work are woefully lacking.

One would hope that U.S. officials would be sobered by those bruising experiences, but there is little evidence of that. Even now, the Obama administration continues to flirt with intervening in Syria. That would be a huge mistake. Syria’s ethno-religious divisions make those of Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya look mild by comparison. Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a thuggish ruler, and the humanitarian situation in Syria is tragic. But a U.S.-led intervention could cause Syria’s fragile political and ethnic tapestry to unravel entirely, and that might make the current situation far worse. The Obama administration needs to exercise great care and restraint.

Will Congress Block Military Aid to the Syrian Rebels?

Other news has pushed Syria out of the headlines in the past two weeks, but some members of Congress have spent the time preparing for a showdown with the Obama administration over its decision to arm rebels in Syria. 

Late last month, a bipartisan group led by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) put forward legislation (H.R. 2494) that would block military aid to Syria pending authorization by a joint congressional resolution. The legislation would allow non-lethal assistance to continue to flow, but would require the administration to report every 90 days on what groups are receiving the aid, and the character of the aid being provided. Similar legislation (S. 1201) was introduced in the Senate by two Democrats (Tom Udall, NM; and Chris Murphy, CT) and two Republicans (Rand Paul, KY; and Mike Lee, UT).

Last week, Gibson and bill co-sponsor Peter Welch (D-VT) appeared on C-Span to discuss the legislative initiative. More information can be found here.

The effort seems like a long shot given the steady erosion of the U.S. Congress’s control over the war powers. This regression was reflected most recently by the Obama administration’s decision to wage “kinetic military action” against Libya under a UN Security Council Resolution, and in the face of strong congressional opposition. On the other hand, the American people remain overwhelmingly opposed to deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, and a mere 11 percent support arming the rebels, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In this case, at least, the people’s elected representatives are at least doing their jobs in representing their constituents’ views.  

As to the substance of the legislation, one can sympathize with the premise behind it without agreeing with co-sponsor Michele Bachmann (R-MN) that the Syrian rebels are “enemies” of the United States who could “defeat us and our way of life” (though a few might aspire to such grandiose aims). On policy grounds, limited military intervention in Syria is unlikely to turn the tide in favor of our prefered group (one that is presumably secular, pro-U.S., and capable of governing Syria), which means that arming the rebels is likely to extend the conflict and drag the United States more deeply into another civil war in the region. As Rep. Mike Nolan (D-MN) noted, “This matter, however tragic and sad, will not be resolved by the US’s involvement or intervention and will only invite resentment from both sides, as has been proven time and time again. We must get over the false notion that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”

Another reason why the legislation is attracting bipartisan support has to do with the separation of powers, and a nascent movement within the Congress to reclaim at least some of its constitutional authority. We saw a glimmer of this opposition in the spring of 2011. The floor debate ultimately failed to halt U.S. military intervention in Libya, but at least we had such a debate. We need one with respect to arming the Syrian rebels.

Gibson, the author of legislation that would revise the War Powers Act, appears to be motivated primarily by those aims. A retired U.S. Army Colonel who served four tours in Iraq, Gibson earned a PhD in government from Cornell and later published a book on civil-military relations. He spoke on the subject in late 2011 at a Cato Capitol Hill Briefing.

In introducing the Syrian legislation, Gibson explained:

As I have long-maintained, the decision to engage overseas must be made with the utmost caution and with a full understanding of the dynamics. Most importantly, the American people, through their Congressional Representatives, must be part of this decision process….This bipartisan legislation will ensure we can maintain our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to support the Syrian people without getting drawn into another engagement. Moving forward, it is vital that Congress be a part of this debate and provide authorization prior to any hostile action or escalation of our involvement. 

As I said, this is a long-shot effort given the extent to which power has shifted to the executive branch, and given that many of Gibson’s colleagues (both Republicans and Democrats) seem so willing to ignore their sacred oath to uphold the Constitution. But it is gratifying to see at least some members of Congress taking their responsibilities seriously.