Syria Indecision: Give Them A (Small) Break

by Bob Schwartz

Decision Tree
Hard cases make bad law.

This is a maxim of the legal process. Roughly, it means that cases with lots of moving parts, with lots of collateral considerations, with no clear and straight path to resolution, produce rulings that are unsettling and unsatisfactory and, worse, have limited or counterproductive effect down the road.

Maybe the corollary is that hard foreign cases make bad foreign policy.

The indecision of Congressfolk is usually vexing, as so many of them claim to be weighing the factors, all the while putting their finger in the air to feel which way the wind blows.

This decision on attacking Syria seems to be different. There are certainly plenty of politicians who are trying to look thoughtful as they assess potential electoral damage. But this situation is so complex that for the moment, despite the usual frustration as a voter and citizen, a number of the Senators and Representatives deserve a little bit of a break. A lot of them are understandably having real trouble figuring out what to do—as are many of us.

The complexity isn’t just the result of a force of nature, and isn’t even due entirely to Assad. President Obama may have handled Syria with some degree of insight, intelligence and integrity, but he has made a difficult situation much harder. It is now widely agreed that announcing a chemical weapon “red line” long ago without a clear plan—public or at least private—to respond if and when it was crossed was a mistake. This contingency plan did not have to be tactically certain: how much evidence to need, which particular sites would be targeted. But the much bigger strategic issues—objectives and the dizzying range of possible consequences, good and bad—should have been vetted in all sorts of venues, including Congress.

That didn’t happen. So in short order, we are discussing the international conventions on chemical warfare, the forensics of discovering the use of chemical weapons, our ability to execute a limited strike, all the more or less likely impacts of a limited strike, the interpretation of the history of all our recent wars, comparison of our current situation to all those wars, and even the question of what exactly war is. So we have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff telling a House committee this week that an air strike such as the one contemplated would be an act of war, while Secretary of State John Kerry, sitting right beside him, begged to differ: “We don’t believe we are going to war, in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war.”

Americans are also being asked to learn more about a country and civil conflict that was often regarded as a video clip, sound bite or talking point—including discovering the shocking news that two million people are currently refugees from Syria (including one million children), leaving their country at a rate of one million people every six months.

Among those more or less likely impacts, there is a possibility that even this small action could precipitate wider and deeper crises, ones that might make our previous (mis)adventures look relatively small. We can’t be sure, of course, of this or just about anything else right now.

That’s a lot to discuss and digest. But we only have a few weeks, or so we are told. So, while Congress may be the most disliked institution in the country, seemingly stuffed with people who are uncertain about the proper ratio of self-interest to national interest, on this they are going to get a brief pass while they really do contemplate a genuinely serious and complicated situation. But after that break, when confusion is no longer an option, because deciding is the reason they get the honor and the big bucks, we expect them to vote conscientiously and to explain their vote clearly and unequivocally.

One more small matter: If any of them do vote “Present” in the final roll call on this, they should be expected to fall on their sword and offer their resignation forthwith. With only an 11% approval rate (and dropping), Congress doesn’t have room for any more of that sort of mushy politics.