Obama Backs Down, Seeks Congressional Okay for Syria Attack
The forces arrayed in Washington propelling the nation into a war against Syria, including the Pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, the cabal of neo-conservative pundits and “think” tanks, whose ranks include President Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, the arms industry, the oil industry and other groups, are very powerful, and it may well be that eventually sheer momentum will lead to a US bombing attack on Syria. But for the moment, a grass-roots global anti-war campaign has triumphed.
Only days ago, the corporate media were shamelessly beating the drums for war, quoting “official sources” as saying the decision to attack had already been made with the only question being the timing of an attack, and with some saying bombing could begin as early as Thursday, Aug. 29. Meanwhile, leaders of countries around the world, especially in Europe, were voicing their support for a US plan to “punish” the Syrian military and government for an alleged gas attack on civilians.
On August 29, however, instead of a US bombing blitz there was a debate in the British Parliament on a motion by Prime Minister David Cameron to authorize Britain to join the US in an attack on Syria. It was to have been a token display of democratic debate, with the outcome — approval of the motion — foreordained. Instead, Cameron’s support, even among members of his own Tory party, withered, as the evidence he presented was skewered, as memories of the lies of the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, were revived, and as the British public demonstrated and demanded that there be no attack. Cameron, by day’s end, conceded defeat, and Britain was no longer “America’s poodle.”
Since then, support for an American attack to “punish” Syrian leader Bashar al Assad for an alleged gas attack has eroded further. Earlier this week, the media were reporting as fact Obama administration claims that the Arab League was in support of a US-led airstrike on Syrian government forces. By Saturday, the media were reporting that the Obama administration was “struggling to locate” just one Arab state that would endorse an attack on Syria.
There are no takers. Not even Saudi Arabia (which some reports suggest was actually behind the gas attack on civilians in Damascus, rather than Syrian government forces as claimed by the US), is willing to publicly back a US attack.
While French President François Hollande continues to voice support for a US-led attack on Syria, French popular opposition to an attack is growing by the day, with Reuters reporting on Friday that 64% of French people opposed an attack, and 58% said they did not trust President Hollande to oversee such an action. Today, even Hollande pulled back, saying France would require a vote by the French parliament and the US Congress approving hostilities before he would commit French forces to such an action.
All week, President Obama, who still, to the enduring shame of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, holds the title of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was claiming that he had the authority on his own to order a US attack on Syria, without either UN or Congressional authorization. He was reported to have “ordered up” a legal justification for war from his endlessly creative and accommodating “Justice” Department.
The assertion of presidential power to legally launch a war on his own was from the outset a brazenly undemocratic–and illegal–claim. The UN Charter, a treaty which the US helped to author and which was approved by Congress, making it a binding law for the nation, declares it illegal and a supreme war crime for any nation to launch an attack on another nation unless the nation initiating hostilities is in imminent danger of attack. Clearly the US is not in any danger of attack from Syria, nor is any other nation in imminent danger of attack from Syria, which is embroiled in a wholly internal civil war. Meanwhile, under the War Powers Act, the president is only empowered to initiate hostilities against another nation without prior Congressional approval when US interests, citizens or territory are in danger or are under attack. As there is no threat to US interests from Syria, imminent or otherwise, any military action by US forces thus requires prior Congressional approval.
In what can only be described as a remarkable climb-down and a defeat for President Obama and the forces pressing for war against Syria, Obama late Saturday announced that he would not be launching an attack on Syria without first obtaining the approval of Congress.
In an announcement made outside of the White House, a clearly frustrated Obama reiterated his questionable assertion that “the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people.” He repeated the same lame circumstantial evidence being used to support this claim.
But then he said that “while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” he would not do so, but would instead defer to Congress, saying, “I’m also 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’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”
The president also conceded the obvious: there is no urgency to attack, even if Syria were proven guilty of a chemical warfare war crime. Any punishment of Syria could be arranged months from now. There is no justification for a rush to judgement or to war.
Behind these flowery words is a hard reality: the president of the United States has been compelled to back down. Public opposition in the US and abroad to yet another war of choice launched against another middle eastern nation that poses no threat to this country has brought the American war machine, at least for the moment, to a screeching halt. In Europe and elsewhere, public pressure has forced leaders to back away from their initial reflexive support for a US strike on Syria. And according to Charles Blow of the New York Times, 50% of Americans oppose any US military action against Syria, with only 28% saying that an attack on Syria would be in America’s interest. Blow says this is the highest level of public opposition to war in three decades of US warmaking.
It is a time for celebrating the power of the people, but it is not a time for resting. The lobbying of members of Congress by the administration and the various interests that are pushing for war will be intense over the coming week or so. Public pressure on members of Congress to oppose any attack will have to be even more relentless and intense.
This madness can be stopped. We can see that now. But it can only be stopped if we keep the pressure on every member of Congress.
DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).