President Obama, in his address to the nation Tuesday, made it clear he’s ready to give diplomacy a chance to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s deadly chemical weapons arsenal. We’ll call that Plan A.
He said the initiative, which he is pursuing with Russia and American allies France and Great Britain, and would likely require a United Nations resolution requiring Assad to destroy his chemical weapons under international control, “has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
We’re wary of Russia’s (and Syria’s) motives; still, this is worth a try.
If it fails, though, the president is still prepared to move forward Plan B, which, we presume, still involves congressional approval for limited military action. He even asked his “friends” on the left and the right to reconcile their differences with this proposal while noting he’s asked Congress to delay any votes on authorization pending the outcome of the diplomatic track.
“I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” Obama said.
But what if that fails, too? Likely the president swayed some Americans with his arguments, but it probably won’t be enough to win a vote in the House of Representatives, even if he wins in the Senate.
In that event, the president needs to proceed with Plan C — strike Syria on his own authority as commander in chief.
As many senators, including Pennsylvania’s Robert P. Casey Jr., have already said, the president has the legal authority to launch a strike on Syria under the War Powers Act of 1973. That act grants a sitting president the power to launch military action against a foreign power for 60-90 days without authorization from Congress.
Not everyone agrees. Former U.S. Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.) one of the authors of the War Powers Act, told Politico that since the Syrian situation doesn’t pose a crisis for the United States, the act doesn’t apply.
The president, however, argued that the Syrian civil war does pose a threat to national security, and the prevailing opinion appears to be that the act gives the president broader authority to engage in limited military action overseas.
So, why doesn’t he?
Some of Obama’s harshest critics say the president mishandled the entire situation, that he should have acted sooner and that going to Congress only made him appear weak and easily manipulated by the Russians.
We wonder what those critics would have said had he acted unilaterally. We can’t recall a president in recent memory facing such a polarized Congress. And let’s remember, when this is over, the president must still push through a domestic agenda.
Nevertheless, it looks increasingly apparent that the only way the president can back up his legitimate red line against the use of chemical weapons — weapons that have been banned by most of the world community for nearly 100 years — unilateral action on his part may be the only way.
For diplomatic and political reasons, the president is trying Plan A. Soon, he may resort to Plan B.
Let’s hope Plan C isn’t necessary. But if it is, the president must be prepared to use it.