Obama’s Turn to Congress: More Deception on Syria

Barack Obama’s endless mendacity was on rich display during his surprise weekend announcement that he would seek Congressional approval for his planned air attack on Syria. The attack, he says, is intended to punish the Syrian state for “flouting international rules” and outraging “the global community” by gassing its own people with chemical weapons. In explaining why he decided to seek the consent of Congress, Obama claimed to be “mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why…I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. “[1] 

Forget for a moment that the rich and powerful U.S. founders set up a constitutional republic cleverly designed to keep popular democracy – their worst nightmare – at bay. Forget also “that the US will not become involved in foreign wars of choice without the consent of …Congress is a central mandate of the US Constitution, not some enlightened, progressive innovation of the 21st century.”[2] Never mind that Obama did not bother with Congressional approval prior to waging an air war on Libya and that he has conducted an ongoing many-sided dirty and secret special forces and drone war with little concern for the protests of some in Congress. 

Never mind that he has consistently made domestic economic policy in accord with the wishes and power of the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money”[3], over and against the wishes of the nation’s popular, working and middle-class majority [4]. And that Congress is equally captive to that dictatorship in a time when a candidate cannot successfully challenge a House incumbent without raising at least $150 million in election funding. 

Forget that the United States has repeatedly used chemical and even radioactive weapons against civilians. Forget that the U.S. stands in the vanguard of modern petro-capitalism’s gassing of all life on Earth through wildly excessive global carbon emissions that increasingly pose a grave threat to human survival. And that the United States policy makers have long felt entitled by America’s supposed “exceptionalism” to violate international rules and horrify “the global community” with abject impunity. 

An example of this impunity came in Obama’s own Saturday Syria statement. “I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors,” Obama said, adding that “I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of [the] United Nations Security Council….” That is a clear statement of criminal intent, in bold defiance of the UN Charter, signed by the United States. As John Forbes Kerry said during the Senate hearings that confirmed his appointment as Secretary of State, “a U.N. resolution is a necessary ingredient to provide the legal basis for military action in an emergency.”[5] The leading cruise missile liberal (CML) Kerry has joined Obama in openly dismissing the UN and its Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. 

Put all that aside and appreciate the real reason for Obama’s turn to Congress. The president has painted himself into a potentially humiliating corner by huffing and puffing over “red lines” when there is little international support for his war plans. Beneath all the understandable global outrage over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Obama faces a much less advantageous situation vis-à-vis Syria than he did with Libya in February of 2011. As Middle East historian Juan Cole explains:


“Obama did not need Congress in the case of Libya. He had the Arab League, the UN Security Council, and NATO…But [he has] became more and more isolated [on Syria]. The Arab League declined to call for intervention… Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and other Arab countries forthrightly denounced the idea of foreign military intervention in Syria, a very different stance than many of them took in 2011 with regard to Libya…Then NATO declined to get involved, with Poland, Belgium, and others expressing reluctance…Then the British Parliament followed suit.” [6]

To make matters worse for Obama, the U.S. led bombing of Libya turned out to be “a total fiasco” when it came to serving Western imperial interests. As the Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar notes, “NATO’s intervention only helped turn Libya less West-friendly than it has been under Ghadaffi during the last years of his reign. And, of course, Libya offered the major enticement of being a major oil exporter, which Syria is not.”[7]

The administration knows further that most Western policy and opinion makers share its “patent lack of sympathy for [and] confidence in the Syrian popular uprising” (Achcar) and that responsible intelligence links raise serious doubts about the notion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad actively ordered the chemical weapons attack of August 21. Along the way, besides the fact that Obama’s attacks will kill civilians and the risk of broad regional spillover and catastrophe, there’s the tricky matter of Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly making strange noises about attacking Saudi Arabia if the West attacks Syria. Putin has sent Russian warships into the Mediterranean, raising the specter of escalating U.S. tensions with what is still the world’s second leading nuclear weapons power.

In his race to war, Obama and his leading CML and humanitarian-imperialist advisors and operatives (Susan Rice and Samantha Power) must feel a little bit like the cartoon character Road Runner [correction: Wiley Coyote], caught ten yards off a cliff and realizing that there’s no solid ground underneath. With no safety net and fig leaf for imminent war crimes on offer from the UN, NATO, the Arab League, or even from the British junior partner in mass Muslim-killing, the Nobel Peace Prize-mocking president is gambling that Congress will grant him one. If the attack turns out to be yet another example of the longstanding futility of Washington’s belief that it can militarily manage the world from the banks of the Potomac, he can deal Congress in on the shame of the latest imperial fiasco.

Always the politician, Obama may have made a clever personal and partisan calculation. As Cole notes, “The Tea Party and the GOP in general had been demanding that he submit the Syria file to them. So he obliged them. If they say ‘no,’ as the British parliament did, then Obama is off the hook. If they say ‘yes,’ then they are full partners in any failures that result. Either way, the issue is taken off the agenda of the 2016 election and Democrats are held harmless.”[8]

At the same time, Obama naturally retains the right to attack if Congress fails to “authorize.” As Glenn Greenwald observes, “the Congressional vote which Obama said he would seek appears, in his mind, to have no binding force at all. There is no reason to believe that a Congressional rejection of the war's authorization would constrain Obama in any way, other than perhaps politically….Why would the White House view the President's power to wage war in Libya as unconstrainable by Congress, yet view his power to wage war in Syria as dependent upon Congressional authorization? More to the point, his aides are making clear that Obama does not view the vote as binding, as Time reports…”[9]

The U.S. and its Commander in Chief feel that their use-of-deadly-force credibility is on the line, like a Mafia don compelled to generate some corpses to prove that he is still worth fearing. Reduced to missile-attacking and bombing a rogue state to maintain imperial authority, Obama remains poised to make Syria the eighth majority-Muslim country with which the U.S. has been at war during his term as president [10].

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).



1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/31/statement-president-syria

2. Glenn Greenwald, “Obama, Congress, and Syria,” The Guardian (September 1, 2013), http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/01/obama-congress-syria-authorization

3. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “‘Riding the Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Democracy and Beyond,” MRZine (July 24, 2009), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/hp240709.html

4. Paul Street, “No Functioning Democracy,” Z Magazine (September 2012): 36-40.

5. http://www.lawfareblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Kerry-Confirmation-Testimony.pdf

6. Juan Cole, “Obama Goes to Congress on Syria as His International Support Collapses,” Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion (September 1, 2013), http://www.juancole.com/2013/09/congress-international-collapses.html

7. Gilbert Achcar, “Welcoming the Vote of the British Parliament While Supporting the Syrian Uprising,” Open Democracy (August 3, 20013), http://www.opendemocracy.net/gilbert-achcar/welcoming-vote-of-british-parliament-while-supporting-syrian-uprising

8. Cole, “Obama Goes to Congress.”

9. Greenwald, “Obama, Congress, and Syria.”

10. The others so far: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Libya, and Somalia.

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