There is an apparent disconnect between the White House’s strategic goals in Syria and the draft AUMF it sent to Congress last week—though negotiations in Congress appear to be addressing the issue.
From the outset, President Obama has been at pains to emphasize the modesty of the United States’ objectives in using force. His Administration disclaimed any intention to push the Assad regime from power; the President likewise characterized even himself as “war-weary.” And today he sang from that same hymnal, insisting that a still-hypothetical Syria campaign would be meant only to “degrade” Assad (whatever that might mean in its particulars). And yet restraint doesn’t exactly leap off the page, when one reads over the White House’s draft force statute. Quite the contrary: as Jack and others have explained, the Administration’s bill sweeps far more broadly than the President’s remarks. Indeed it imposes only a few constraints on the use of force, while otherwise granting the executive branch a largely free hand.
What gives? My sense is that the White House never expected, and still does not expect, an authorization of such significant breadth to win congressional approval. If the Syria operation is to go forward with congressional backing, then the authorizing statute must be broad enough to win support from intervention-ish Senators like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, but also narrow enough to command votes from congressional democrats. That dynamic is pretty well-known, and reportedly motivating negotiations in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the authorization’s text. (A hearing on the issue is ongoing; find coverage here.) It also helps to explain the Administration’s recent expressions, yesterday and earlier today, of flexibility regarding the language of any final resolution.