Confused About Syria?

You’re not alone. Steve Saideman on some of the more baffling elements of the debate over intervention in Syria.

By: /
5 September, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

When I used to teach introduction to international relations classes, I would tell my students that I hoped they would be more confused at the end of the term than at the beginning.  I told them I would be providing multiple perspectives on how to look at international relations and it would be up to them to figure out which ones make sense at any given time for any given topic.

So, perhaps it is fitting that I am seriously confused about the latest moves regarding Syria.  No, not the Canadian ones.  That Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird have issued statements siding strongly with the U.S. but committing to not committing the Canadian Forces to the effort does not surprise me. That much was pretty predictable

The confusing developments have been in Great Britain and the United States.  Prime Minister David Cameron lost a huge vote to gain parliament’s support for a Syrian mission.  While it is not surprising that his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, might not be as enthusiastic as the Tories,[1]  the fact that Cameron lost the support of a key chunk of his own party was very surprising.  This is one of the biggest failures of vote counting prior to an important vote that I can remember.  Yes, there are a lot of raw feelings left over from the Iraq War, but one of the key rules for democratic leaders is not to hold votes until one knows what the outcome is going to be.

In the United States, Obama is busy lobbying the Senate, which is controlled by his party, and the House of Representatives, which is not, to support military action against Syria.  The current vote count among Representatives is stacked against Obama.  It may be the case that the opponents are committing faster and louder than the eventual supporters, so we do not yet know how this is going to turn out. 

It is simple enough to explain the opposition to the proposed campaign.  American public opinion, after a decade of wars and ‘non-wars’, is tired; austerity and sequestration have finally brought home the financial tradeoffs that military campaigns represent.[2]  The Republicans prefer to oppose Obama on any issue, regardless of whether it makes them look foolish or not (although here they do not look as foolish as usual).

What confuses me is why Obama felt the need to go to Congress for support in the first place.  Some would say that he needs the legitimacy that support would give him when he doesn’t have a United Nations resolution.  But the presence or absence of a UN resolution does not mean as much for American audiences as it does elsewhere.  The American people did not care about the lack of a UN resolution for Kosovo or Iraq (2003).  While I tend to dismiss American exceptionalism much of the time, here is where it matters – the American people do not see the UN Security Council as a necessary legitimator of military efforts.  They recognize quite clearly that doing so would mean that U.S. foreign policy would be subject to Russian and Chinese vetoes.  Working within NATO increases the legitimacy of an intervention in the eyes of Americans, but even NATO is not entirely necessary.  So, the argument that Obama asked for Congressional support because he doesn’t have the approval of international organizations makes little sense from the standpoint of American domestic politics.

Getting Congress behind him would, however, increase Obama’s credibility when making threats towards Syria.  But it is not clear why that should matter.  At this point in the process, we are no longer trying to deter Syrian behaviour, we are trying to punish it.  Credibility and reputation are said to matter for the former but not the latter.

Given that Obama was going to be criticized no matter what he does, perhaps going to Congress is a way to force Republicans into a corner.  Either they vote for the resolution, which limits their ability to criticize the effort, or they vote against it, and are seen as playing politics with national security.  Also, if they vote no, Obama would have an excuse to duck yet another Mideast war.  But this move is risky for Democrats.  Those voting for the resolution will face hostile districts, as the proposed war is quite unpopular.

One could argue that Obama is simply doing what he is supposed to according to the War Powers Resolution.  The WPR was passed in the aftermath of Vietnam to give Congress a role in the deployment of forces when war is not declared (the last time the U.S. actually declared war was the Second World War).  Presidents have tended not to recognize these requirements because they view it as an unconstitutional restriction on their authority, although they often (but not always) seek Congressional support.  It is not clear why the WPR would matter here and not for Libya.  Both are ‘non-war’ wars in the sense that the president wants to only use an air campaign with no soldiers actually deployed on the ground.  One could argue that the Libyan mission needed a quick response due to the threat to Benghazi, but the language of the WPR gives the president the power to respond first and then seek Congressional support later as the mission continues.  Obama did not do that for Libya, so why now?

See what I mean about being confused?  I am also confused about what a bombing campaign would actually achieve.  Perhaps the goal is to prevent the defeat of the opposition without giving them enough support to win?  Both sides are pretty inimical to American interests, so a dark view of the situation would be that the U.S. wants to do just enough to keep the conflict going.  There is also a lot of talk about American credibility and its international reputation, but scholars have argued pretty convincingly that countries focus on present day capabilities, stakes, and the perceived intentions of their adversaries rather than past actions.  On the other hand, policy-makers often ignore the scholars.

My point here is not to clarify why these things are happening. Rather, I want to assure readers that any confusion they might be feeling is quite appropriate for this situation.  You are not alone.

[1] My forthcoming book with David Auerswald essentially starts with the assumption that coalition governments have problems engaging in military expeditions precisely because parties in governing coalitions will vary in their interest in such efforts.

[2] I was at a panel at the American Political Science Association last week where Linda Blimes explained why her website,, is an understatement as the total costs of Afghanistan and Iraq will approach $4 trillion once all of the disabilities and veterans costs accumulate over the next seventy years.

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