Syria: Another Fine Mess Gets Even Finer

So Obama, in an oddly delayed statement, has stated to the surprise of many that he will seek Congressional approval for military action in Syria.  This is the right thing to do, Constitutionally, but I don’t think that Obama was struck by pangs of Constitutional conscience.  His was a pragmatic decision.  And likely an overdetermined one.  There is no popular support for intervention.  There is, no doubt, considerable unease in Congress, especially in the Democratic caucus, and especially in the progressive portion of that caucus that is Obama’s political home.  He knows that by going in without Congressional approval, he owns 100 percent of the outcome-which is unlikely to be a good one, or which at least has a high probability of being an ineffectual or ugly one.

And there’s another potential factor.  There is no way Obama wants to go to the G20 in Russia with TLAMs flying, or in the immediate aftermath of an attack.  Hell, for him time with Putin is like a root canal without anesthesia even when he isn’t attacking one of Russia’s allies.  One can only imagine how gruesome it would be when he is.  Congress is in recess, and will not return until after Obama has returned to the US.

One last issue: Obama’s heart is obviously not in an attack.  Perhaps he believes, Micawber-like, that if he delays for a couple of weeks, something may turn up and relieve him of the burden of ordering an attack.

In other words, Obama has several reasons to stall for time.  Seeking Congressional approval permits him to do just that.

But in choosing this course, Obama has traded one risk for others.  In particular, he risks being humiliated in Congress, as Cameron was humiliated in parliament.  There are reports circulating, however, that Obama plans to proceed with a strike even if Congress does not approve.  This risks a Constitutional crisis.

There’s also the issue of how this will be perceived in Damascus, Tehran, Moscow, and elsewhere.  No doubt the charmers in the echelons of power in those places are chortling, if not guffawing.  They will conclude that Obama cannot even muster the fortitude to order a feckless strike-one that he again touted as feckless (but as a feature, not a bug).  They are unlikely to place much stock in Constitutional niceties anyways, but the fact that Obama made this announcement after days of stories reporting that he would “consult” with Congress but not seek its approval will no doubt be interpreted as a loss of nerve.

Which could unleash another perverse dynamic.  Part of Obama’s motivation for an attack is to redeem his credibility, in the aftermath of his “red line” ad lib (I will pass over the “Assad must go” statement in silence).  Obama may feel compelled to act more aggressively if this latest pause is widely perceived as an indication of his weakness and lack of will.

Lost in all this is a coherent discussion of how an attack would serve American interests, or save the lives of innocent Syrians.  Yet again, Obama’s statement made it plain that he views a strike as a means of expressing disapproval of the use of chemical weapons. He was-again-at such pains to convey that any attack-if it ever happens-will be sharply limited.  Therefore, there has been no discussion of how this would deter Assad (or any other dictator) from using chemical weapons, or advance American interests, or accelerate the end of the Syrian civil war.

In other words, the fine mess has gotten even finer.

About Craig Pirrong 228 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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