Executive Power

Bruce Riedel on President Obama's Syria Decision

By Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, August 31, 2013, 7:29 PM

My Brookings colleague Bruce Riedel, who directs the institution's Intelligence Project following a 30-year career in the CIA, writes in with the following comments on President Obama's speech this afternoon:

President Barack Obama is right to ask the Congress to vote for or against military action in Syria. There is no threat of a Syrian chemical or conventional attack on America, so there is no imminent danger that requires an immediate decision solely by the President. Until the Cold War Presidents routinely asked for congressional votes to go to war; since then, the record is more complex, but the principle of legislative support for war is right.

Of course, the President should have been clear from the first day of the current crisis that he would seek a vote by the Congress. His national security team, especially Secretary Kerry and Vice President Biden (both former senators), should have been advising in favor of getting Congress on board. Instead we have a sense of drift in the decision-making process on the vital issue of war and peace. Now the President should also make clear that he will abide by the results of the vote. Prime Minister David Cameron rightly asked (again a bit tardily) for a vote, lost, and the announced that he "got it." The United Kingdom will not go to war. That is how democracy works. For the last two years, Obama has pursued a policy of avoiding American involvement in the Syrian civil war. He has suggested involvement would only lead to another quagmire like Iraq. Instead, he has focused on trying to contain the danger of spillover from Syria to our allies, especially Jordan. To change that approach without getting Congressional support would have been reckless.

The President's decision to ask for a Congressional mandate should also serve as a precedent for any decision to use force against Iran to halt its nuclear weapons project. A war with Iran would be vastly more dangerous and costly than one with Syria, even if both are intended to be limited. Wars always have unintended consequences. If time permits, the people's representatives should be part of the decision to take on the risks of action. President George H.W. Bush did that before the liberation of Kuwait. As a senior intelligence officer, I spent days explaining the CIA's estimates of the risks to the Congress. The process sharpened our analysis. There are no good options in Syria. Sliding into the conflict by baby steps and partial measures is the worst approach. Even worse would be to do so without a national debate and Congressional action.