National Security for Dummies: Syria Exposes D.C.’s Chasm Between War and Politics

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey at a House Armed Services Committee Hearing

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Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey at a House Armed Services Committee Hearing

For the shouting politico crowd, Syria is a political gamble between a ‘lame duck’ president and a weak GOP. For the natsec crowd, it’s geopolitical warfare best left to the adults. By Kevin Baron

The politics of national security in Washington rarely are on display as they have been during the Syria war watch of the past few weeks.

Like a beach town waiting in eerie angst for a hurricane three days away, its a time where seemingly everyone has something to say and none of it makes much difference to what’s about to happen.

But talk they will, and talk they have.

“It’s going to affect the rest of his agenda, the rest of his year, the rest of his term,” Ana Navarro, CNN’s Republican strategist, breathlessly proclaimed on Monday. She was speaking about President Obama’s flailing attempt for a congressional rubber stamp of approval for military strikes in Syria. Navarro didn’t take long to go Full Monty. If Obama can’t win the House GOP’s backing on this one, she declared that Obama already was a “lame duck.”

Welcome to the Washington, where politics and national security are like oil and water, but try to mix they will. The national security crowd thinks they’re the smart ones, the serious ones, the ones who talk about nation-state brinksmanship, al Qaeda and Putin, terrorism and global thermonuclear warfare. Most voters, much less Americans, can’t find the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on a map. The political crowd thinks their opinion matters for everything; they’re the popular kids, this is politics and politics trumps everything, especially national security. After all, only 7 percent of voters in last year’s presidential elections cared about Afghanistan, but everyone cared about Obamacare. And Herman Cain.

The minute Obama said he wanted Congress to authorize strikes against Syria before he ordered them, the president gave up some control — of the megaphone, the debate, the parameters of the debate and the metrics of how to determine whether he was going to score a political “win” with the Syria “situation.” That’s one way to look at it.

Another way to judge it: Obama’s decision could affect the course of the Middle East for the next 50 to 100 years, set the baseline for America’s chances at retaining global superpower and influencer status from London to Sana’a, and either foment or douse the Clash of Civilizations.

If you got that last reference, you’re in the natsec camp.

It’s not that one is better than the other. It’s just that neither side seems to understand the other. Or maybe they do, they just don’t much care for trying to convince the other why they should care. But political media will focus on the political gamesmanship and national security media will focus on the global gamesmanship, and some will focus on the actual matters of politics and war.

The reality is that Commander-in-Chief Obama can do whatever he wants, no matter what the House GOP votes, or the United Nations Security Council votes or the British Parliament votes. Congress decades ago ceded the power to prevent the executive from sending troops into battles, big or small, manned or remote controlled, boots in the air or on the ground.

By forces of time, politics, and circumstance, who knows why the president decided to make a war powers stand on this military action? Perhaps it is because to the hawkish side of the natsec crowd, a missile strike or two was a no-brainer, classic response to a major chemical weapons violation that demanded an American-led military response. At the end of the day, Obama has plenty of choices to justify striking Bashar al Assad’s regime in response for gassing civilians and children as rebels inched closer to his doorstep.

Would it be nice, politically, for Obama to have the House GOP’s approval? Certainly. Is it required? Certainly not.

There is no political penalty if Obama wins or loses the House GOP’s Syria vote. The House GOP already gives Obama no support. What would change now? As for Democrats, nobody in America is going to withhold their vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of Obama’s handling of Syria in 2013. Remember Mitt Romney’s attempts to gain traction on Obama’s hands-off handling of the Iran protests of 2009? On Russia as geopolitical enemy No. 1? On anything foreign policy related that was unrelated to jobs?

The real question is not whether Obama scores victory in Washington or the U.S. scores points in the Middle East. The real question is whether Cold War-era red lines, like violating chemical weapons conventions, mean anything. Obama has but the emergency brake on the war machine, now that Secretary of State John Kerry offered a way out for Syria and Russia pounced on it. But if U.S. troops are ordered to strike, you can bet Americans will rally.

Another serious concern is that the Obama administration lacks any direction or strategy for the entire Middle East. Obama’s so-called “lead from behind” approach to the Middle East has caused the foreign policy community in Washington to start acting like antsy backseat kids on a cross-country road trip. Obama’s own former Middle East policy chief in the Pentagon-turned reelection campaign advisor, Colin Kahl, wrote on Defense One’s first day that Obama needed a Middle East strategy. The sentiment has been echoed by Thomas Pickering, Dennis Ross and Ryan Crocker, among others.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, the House Armed Services Committee had its turn at hearings with Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. It was the third open Syria hearing since Congress returned from recess. It didn’t take long for members of Congress to find ways to score their own points.

Just take Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., one of Obama’s biggest critics on defense spending, attempting to link Syria to the budget debate. Hagel said the budget is a bigger national security concern than Syria was — that’s a line probably anyone in Washington would say, these days. So Forbes’ office, within two hours of the hearing’s end, put out a statement with Forbes saying, “Secretary Hagel has confirmed what we have long known: that the Obama administration’s reckless cuts to our national defense pose a grave danger to U.S. national security.” Gotcha!

Forbes continues: “I find it simply incredible that President Obama can contemplate American involvement in Syria at the very time his defense secretary is acknowledging that the administration’s own defense policies are damaging our national security. Whether it is retiring seven Navy cruisers containing double the firepower of the entire British Navy or refusing to provide the Air Force with its minimum requirement for F-22 fighters, President Obama has left a legacy of dangerous military neglect that future presidents and Congresses will be forced to confront.”

If you know what he’s talking about, you’re in the natsec crowd as well. But you could find similar shots in the dark across the spectrum in this town. CNN aired a segment highlighting how the Syria vote may split the Congressional Black Caucus. You know when you’ve talked a foreign policy issue to death? When you’ve reached the Congressional Black Caucus.

Still, some national security players are born from the political cloth and did their best to keep the conversation both serious and point-winning for their camps.

“I’m very skeptical that it’s a breakthrough,” said Tommy Vietor, appearing on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show on Monday night, as Washington was trying to digest just what Russia and Syria were trying to pull with their offer to hand over Syria’s stockpiles. Vietor called the development “better than a military strike” because it would take the chemical weapons out of the country, not just make them harder to use.

“This only happened today because, as the president said, there is a credible military threat on the table,” Vietor said.

Point, Obama.

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