Fish or Cut Bait?


What to do? What to do?

With the Obama administration giving every sign of intending to use military force against Syria, the nation is once again faced with the differing opinions about the War Powers Resolution of 1973. The Wikipedia page on that states this at the outset:

. . . is a federal law intended to check the president’s power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress. The resolution was adopted in the form of a United States Congress joint resolution; this provides that the President can send U.S. armed forces into action abroad only by declaration of war by Congress, “statutory authorization,” or in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Now that seems clear, but then there is a long discussion over the legal language used and its ramifications. Presidents since Nixon have argued that the act, which was passed over Nixon’s veto, is unconstitutional, mainly because the Constitution makes the president the “commander in chief” and gives him the responsibility of “defending” the country. And as we all know, “defense” can be interpreted many ways. Nobody disputes Congress’ role in “declaring war”, but in the Executive’s view that leaves short-term military actions the responsibility of the President, and of course we all know how short-term actions can drag on like, well, like the Afghanistan War, now in what, its 11th year?

How one feels about this matter obviously differs depending on where one sits. From the Oval Office, the now-confirmed outrageous violation of internationally-understood rules on weapons of mass destruction demands action. The Navy is on station, loaded for action. The credibility of both the Commander in Chief and the nation are on the line. Assad’s forces, already forewarned, are likely moving assets away from likely targets and preparing backups. What’s a president to do, take decisive action, or refer the matter to a committee of 535 bickering politicians? Well, that’s about what the U.K. did, and despite photos of dead children and writhing victims, the committee over there had a knock-down, drag-out debate and then said “no”.

There’s a lot on the line here, not just for the present situation but for the stability of international relations. Weapons of mass destruction have become almost common. North Korea has primitive nukes and Iran may have them soon.  That would make 11 countries that have them.  Who else has chemical weapons too?  I’m not sure, but if Syria saves itself from the rebels by using them, that will be an important milestone in the annals of warfare.  Are biological weapons next?

Obama’s personal legacy might not be the only thing driving his apparent intention to enforce the “red line”.  He, like Lincoln before him, may be taking an even longer view, that of humanity’s trajectory. I’m not as sure as I was before that the “punishment” strike is wrong. History’s verdict is usually delayed by years, if not decades. But what we are seeing unfolding is, in my opinion, much more than intervention in a religious civil war, it is an important precedent for the ages. If we do this, and especially if we do it without wide international support, then we will have indeed declared ourselves “the world’s policeman”.  Time to fish or cut bait, as they say.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Fish or Cut Bait?

  1. PiedType says:

    On CNN today Major General ‘Spider’ Marks suggested that not only is Assad probably moving and hiding his weapons (something any leader would do, given a week’s notice), but he might be bringing in women and children to use as human shields. So what happens if we launch a strike and kill a dozens of civilians? Where’s our moral high ground then? Obama, I fear, is about to make the worst decision of his presidency.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Using human shields is a classic dilemma, PT. If we allowed it to be effective then its use would be encouraged, so we can’t. It’s part of the horror of war. Similar problems were found with poison gas in WW I, with the machine gun and with the submarine, all of which were found to be abhorrent. If we could enforce such things it would be a huge plus for humanity but every effort fails because war is the ultimate resort.

      Whatever the outcome of the Red Line Dilemma, I have at least expanded my awareness of Constitutional law and the separation of powers. In the link to the War Powers Resolution the article mentions that the controversy over the matter was found (ca. 1990) to be a “non-justiciable political question”. Constitutional lawyers doubtlessly roll this phrase off their tongues quite easily but I had to go to my Merriam Webster iPad app and have it pronounce “justiciable” a couple of times to get the hang of it. Almost feels natural now.

      What it amounts to is the notion that the judicial branch of government can only rule on matters of existing law and that it must demur from questions that ought to be resolved politically. Good luck with that in today’s political climate.

      What really gets me, then, is how the hell did the SCOTUS justify its ruling in Bush v. Gore? If that wasn’t political, I’ll eat my hat. I guess the law sometimes depends on what the justices had for breakfast.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    We have not had a declaration of war since WWII, Dec 1941. Then go count up the dead and wounded Americans resulting from combat from Sept 1945 up to today. Then add in the number of dead and wounded combatants and citizens, non-combatants on the “other side”, in Vietnam, even “our side”.

    Killing other people, or subjecting ones own people to death and wounding while using military force sure sounds like war to me. Yet we have not declared as such for abut 70 years. I wonder why that is the case and what, if anything should be done about it.

    Forget Syria for the moment. Also ignore the nuclear retalitation strike, perhaps ordered by any President on a moments notice if we are subjected to a “first strike”. North Korea’s “police action” under UN auspices, Vietnam, unilateraly U.S, war for sure but not called such. Then the Gulf War, a war in all aspects including a significant time to buildup forces to a war footing, before, then Afganistan a retaliatory strike that turned into a war for all intents and purposes. Only in Iraq did a President get Congressional approval to invade, like it or not, but then …….. And then most recently, Libya as a case in point, for a short time with no loss of American lives that we know of.

    In this most recent case, if you progressives are all for democracy, strong limits on unilaterial Presidential action, then I suggest you must admit that Britain just go it right, did they not? Now should we do the same thing, as a democracy and take this “thing” to Congress and let them decide.

    If and when we start doing such things, Congressional declaration of war in all cases except the really extreme case of nuclear war, then just consider how any American President can “enforce deterrence” of the sort espoused for 60 plus years as a matter of American policy, but not law.

    This is about as apolitical a discussion can be in an area vital to American interests in the future, in my view. Any “embarrassment” on the part of Obama for his “red line” declaration is small in comparison to the “bigger picture” in such matters, for the future.

    Sort of scary is it not??



  3. “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?” ― Mahatma Gandhi


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Herb and Mohatma,

      “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?” ― Mahatma Gandhi

      It has been 68 years since Hiroshima/Nagasaki and no nuclear weapon has since been used to war. This is tenuous but it nevertheless holds. It is evidence that a limit to violence may be possible, and if so, why limit that line to nuclear weapons only? Is not the poison-gassing of 400 children equally abhorrent?

      Ironically, the only absolutes in this munitions chess game are religious. The Sunni’s and the Shiites hate one another and detest other religions so much that they would inflict the sufferings of hell to win their way. We have the power to punish them for behaving that way, and the possibility exists that it would have a deterrent effect.

      Therefore, the question now before the Congress of the United States, placed there properly in my opinion, is whether we have the will to sacrifice a present few for the sake of principle and the possible future of many. If Congress declines to approve Obama’s recommendation, how many in the future will reflect on the additional dead, the orphaned, the disfigured and the homeless, and curse the 2013 Congress for failing to try?

      The GOP controlled House demanded to be consulted, now we will see what kind of leadership resides there. IMHO.


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    This crisis, and it is a real crisis of a long term sort, should not be a domestic poltical fight, But it will turn out that way almost for sure. Progressives are going to call for “supporting the President” and conservatives will generally call for “doing something else”. There we will go again, a Democratic Party controlled Senate supporting the President’s proposed use of force in Syria on a very limited basis and a House, perhaps, saying no.

    Even if Congressional approval is granted I seriously doubt that it will be overwhelming approval for Presidential action. At least a close vote will result in the House. And politics will be all over the matter, one way or the other.

    Two Democrat Presidents slowly led America into Vietnam and a Republican President tried but failed to end that war on terms favorable to America. Same in Korea, Dems getting us “in” and a GOPer getting us “out”. That is not a political statement by the way. It is simply a politcal fact, like it or not.

    Same with Iraq and Afghanistan except the party roles were reversed. A GOPer got us “in” and Democrat got (or is getting us) “out” in both wars.

    In terms of post WWII conflict, twice, only one President got us “in and out”, very quickly, in First Gulf War and Grenada.

    One reason we “got in and out” in First Gulf War (and Grenada as well but it was not called such then) was the Powell Doctrine. Overhwhelming force was used for a limited political objective.

    OK, Jim, as a supporter of the Powell Doctrine, please show how to apply it now in the case of Syria? If you cannot do so, then what “new” doctrine would you propose. I am all ears, for sure, as it relates to what will be a raging debate in the coming days and weeks (perhaps) over Syria, today.

    Much more from all of us, I am sure, one way or the other in the coming days. I only hope we resolve the crisis, which it is, a huge geopolitical crisis world wide now, without letting down and dirty domestic politics interfere. But it will, I am also sure.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      OK, Jim, as a supporter of the Powell Doctrine, please show how to apply it now in the case of Syria? If you cannot do so, then what “new” doctrine would you propose?

      The Powell Doctrine, I submit, applies to the question of “going to war” in the traditional sense. That means the use of military force to achieve political objectives when all other methods have failed. But when it is applied to the Syrian Red Line dilemma, I believe it fails thusly:

      The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

      Is a vital national security interest threatened? (Yes. Stability of oil supply.)
      Do we have a clear attainable objective? (No. This is a religious war in which we have no side.)
      Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? (No, they are unpredictable.)
      Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted? (No. UN, NATO.)
      Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? (No.)
      Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? (No. Again, unpredictable, esp. since rebel politics are undefined.)
      Is the action supported by the American people? (No. Public opinion is divided.)
      Do we have genuine broad international support? (No, only France and Turkey.)

      So, does that mean Congress should withhold approval of Obama’s proposed punishment of Assad’s regime through advanced weaponry because it fails the Powell Doctrine test? No, I say, the Powell Doctrine does not apply here. This is not war to achieve a regime change, nor to decisively alter the outcome of the ongoing civil war, nor any other traditional objective. This does not lead to boots on the ground nor nation-building nor dictation of any form of government in another country. This is a new kind of objective, the international policing of limits to the use of WMD’s. This is something that can only be achieved by a superpower using modern technology, and its approval means that we as a people would be accepting that role along with its responsibilities and costs. Call it the Obama Doctrine if you wish (although that alone might doom it in the GOP-controlled House).

      Personally, I believe the plan should be approved, but it’s not a slam dunk. Innocents will be killed and sectarian passions further inflamed. And what about future use of such an Obama Doctrine? Will Congressional approval be required each time? What about reparations for the loss of property and lives through collateral damage? What we have to gain though may be the only hope for a stable world. Iran and North Korea are watching.

      This deserves a full and rigorous debate and I believe president Obama has made the right call in submitting it to the people’s representatives.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Also, it occurs to me that there is a significant precedent for such an Obama Doctrine in American history. It is the Monroe Doctrine.


  5. Jim,

    Of course Gandhi was right. And his profundity is timeless. Would that we should be so lucky as to have a statesman of his ilk. But, no. Instead, we have a bunch of nincompoops — and hypocrites!

    Where was our sense of outrage and cries for punishment when Sad Damn Hussein gassed the Iranians and the Kurds in the 1980’s? Where was our moral indignation at the atrocities, human suffering, and genocide in sub-Sahara Africa, especially Uganda, Somalia, Darfur, and the Congo? Why weren’t these countries “punished” for their crimes against humanity with a plethora of cruise missiles?

    I think Gandhi would agree with me that bullets and bombs are weapons of mass destruction too. In fact, I’m quite confident that the nice folks in Newtown, CT., and Aurora, CO, would call an AR-15 assault rife a weapon of mass destruction. Again, it’s the dead, the orphans, and the homeless who, IMHO, should be the issue here. The use of any particular weapon or combination of weapons that made them that way is kind of irrelevant.

    Now we’re contemplating a limited attack via Tomahawk missiles on a sovereign nation in the midst of a civil war but one that has not attacked us. This, because of the hysteria brought on by the horrific videos and pictures of the victims who are seen dead and dying of sarin gas poisoning. But there are also some pretty heart-wrenching videos and photos of the victims of gun shots and bombings. The call to arms being urged, then, is based on the kind of weapon used and not the destruction wrought by a totalitarian regime. Really?

    Syria is also in violation of international law. The Geneva Conventions were revised in 1977 to add Protocol II, which was to provide better protection for victims of internal armed conflicts that take place within the borders of a single country; e.g., a civil war. This Protocol provides the legal authority to charge President Bashar al-Assad and those under his command with crimes against humanity. Problem is, the enforcement of this law is through the International Criminal Court. However, the United States, along with Israel and Sudan, does not accept the jurisdiction of the court. (Good thing or Obama and Bush 43 and some of their cronies would now be in prison somewhere in Europe.) So, if the U.S. acts alone, then it is effectively giving he finger to the rest of the civilized world.

    Also, military action being proposed against Syria (and which Obama has decided to use) is not covered under the War Powers Act, because there is no “armed conflict” involved. I suppose Congress would stop short of a Declaration of War and instead use an “authorization to use military force,” as it did against Iraq. Then, again, there is no justification for such a resolution, because Syria, as far as anyone knows, was not involved in the attacks of 9/11, and that is what the “authorization of military force” specifically addressed.

    Then there is the fact that we are out here all alone – no support from our allies, no UN resolutions. And there is this “wait and see what happens after the bombs drop” attitude of the administration that scares the beejesus out of me.

    All this because Obama stupidly declared a “red line” in the sand and feels that he will look weak if he fails to deliver. Not a very presidential thing to do, especially when you have the American Taliban on your ass all the time.

    Based on all this irrational logic, I would think Australia would be justified in lobbing a couple of cruise missiles at Duncan, Oklahoma. After all, one of their own, on a morning jog and with no bone to pick with anybody, was gunned down in cold blood in that little town. Given the unapologetic and ludicrous reason by the perpetrators of the murder that they were “bored,” is, in many ways, also an crime against humanity. Good thing the Prime Minister of Australia didn’t draw a red line on that!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Agreed, Herb, Gandhi was right, but only in a narrow context. He held human dignity and human rights sacrosanct. A nice sentiment, but hardly pragmatic given our species’ penchant for violence.

      In the dogma of the Catholic Church I understand that any sin, whether venial or mortal, commits a soul to eternal torment in hell. Unless, that is, that sin and every other sin is specifically forgiven through a priestly intermediary. If one takes a similar view of Obama’s Red Line, then yes, Australia might be justified in lobbing a missile at Duncan, Oklahoma. But of course that’s not how the real world works. The reality is that we live in a statistical universe.

      From quantum physics to, yes, even politics, what happens has a statistical nature and despite the complexities of the butterfly effect and chaos theory, events can be predictable. Cause and effect are real. Just as the Monroe Doctrine shaped the nature of hegemony in the New World, an Obama Doctrine can shape the nature of humanity’s future relative to WMD’s. With all due respect to Mr. Gandhi, there is no perfect solution for humanity’s future. But, consider this. What if Nazi Germany had developed and used the atomic bomb before we did? They were working on it, but Hitler rejected it as outlandish.

      If an Obama Doctrine deters the use of WMD’s for even a few years, the trajectory of human history will be profoundly altered. I guess the greater question is, should we care about future generations and if so, why? Where have all the philosophers gone?


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    Knowing such discussions were coming, I spent most of yesterday writing THREE blogs, all related to Syria. First a long term view of the lack of American success since WWII in attempts at “limited war”. Then a more focused look at what our real goals are in Syria. I for one am confused on that topic, what our National Objectives in Syria alone should be, or even are for now.

    In the final blog I offered a strictly military view of WHAT we CAN do in Syria right now. Not much is my conclusion for reasons stated in the blog.

    I hesitate to attempt to “sum up” those three blogs. It was hard enought to offer a reasonable basis for “anything” in that attempt, over 2000 words all told.

    For now at least, I offer those three blogs as my own “analysis” of what is a VERY complex issue with huge, long term implications, no matter what we now decide to do in Syia, “today”.

    But it is also a time long past for Americans to hold a rigorous and full debate on the fundamentals of deterrence, MAD, limited wars and when to fight them, who should decide such matters, the need for the correct balance between a “strong” Executive (which any country needs) yet ulitimately the will of the people, however it is determined, in such fundamental and long term matters.

    We have been dodging that bullet for decades now. Let’s get it on the table, apolitically the best way possible and think in terms of ALL Americans and their best interests in terms of adequate defense of our nation and our allies.

    By the way Jim, in terms of an “Obama Doctrine” the only clear one I ever heard was in his Cairo Speech in 2009, something about ties that bind and forces that divide and his approach to only focus on the first one, binding ties. As well, we are in agreement that in the case of Syria the “Powell Doctrine” will not WORK. That does not mean it is a “bad” doctrine. It just means that America does not have the RESOLVE to make it work in Syria, today. I further submit we still have the power to make it work, but refuse to use it, in Syria, today. John McCain thinks we do as well it seems, but I certainly am not endorsing his call for such, either.



  7. Jim,

    Just one more comment on this subject and I’ll go away. I promise.

    You close this post saying, “ If we do this [intervene in Syria’s civil war], and especially if we do it without wide international support, then we will have indeed declared ourselves “the world’s policeman” In my view, therein lies the nut of this whole debate.

    Violations of international law require an international response. Apparently there are none, or at least not many, nations (France?), that would join us to become part of the “intervention.” And the UN is conspicuously silent on the issue. Therefore, it is apparently the collective judgment of the civilized nations of the world that this is a civil war and that, despite the use of chemical weapons and probably violations of other international treaties, it should be left alone to play itself out.

    Even the people in this country, if you believe the polls, are overwhelmingly opposed to any military action. Congress, of course, often goes against the will of the people, which is why they have the lowest approval rating since well, since approval ratings began. You have to take what they do with a grain of salt — and an aspirin.

    So, the fundamental question is, with no international support and no support from the citizens of this country, who, exactly, are we protecting with our “police” power? In fact, isn’t it kind of dangerous to let our president decide how and when to use the military without the support and approval of the people. Seems to me that kind of power is usually exercised by tyrants. Matter of fact, I think we fought a Revolutionary War over that issue.

    And declaring war on Syria, which we euphemistically call “punishment,” and “violations of international law,” under the rubric of stopping the use of weapons of mass destruction is, in my view, a red herring. We attack Syria, but let Iran and North Korea continue unabated in the development of nuclear weapons, which are many orders of magnitude more deadly than Sarin gas, and then expect our credibility to be diminished if we don’t attack? What the hell is the administration thinking?

    At the end of the day, what we have here is a president who, with minimal leadership skills, has stuck his dick out and it’s now getting stepped on. There are so many unintended consequences that could arise out of a missile strike, that it would, as I have said before, be irresponsible for us to even consider it. As you well know, even the best military planning in the world goes out the window after the first shot is fired

    I appreciate the president’s and his spokesmen’s passion and the moral outrage that we all share. But we need to take a breath and think like adults.

    In any case, we should stop creating so damn much mischief in the Middle East. It’s getting very expensive. And dangerous.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Whatever you do, Herb, please do not go away. You are one of the most incisive bloggers I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with.

      You said,

      “Violations of international law require an international response.”

      Sounds like common sense, but do they really? You are in good company to think so because people in the opinion polls and therefore Congress seem to think so. But what the president has proposed is, as you acknowledge, that the U.S. alone can be the world’s policeman. This requires thinking outside the box of history because it’s unprecedented. Or at least unprecedented in articulated political policy. De facto, the U.S. has performed the same function for nuclear weapons since 1945 simply by developing and deploying strategic nuclear weapons as a deterrent, and it has worked.

      Is it dangerous, you ask, to let the president decide how and when to use military power on his own? You bet. That’s why I think Obama decided to set a precedent and enlist the political process to buttress his bold proposal to undertake an unprecedented humane mission as the world’s policeman. But I fear that he underestimated the ability of the body politic to understand a radical shift in philosophy, a shift only recently made viable by technology. The Man in the Street is hardly prone to vision in answering abrupt questions from pollsters.

      All that said, however, I fully recognize the dangers that you, Bud Morgan and others elsewhere in these posts, see in such intervention. I’ve got no crystal ball either, and it could be disastrous. But what we need to ask ourselves is this, I submit: By eschewing this very limited action about the Red Line in Syria, how much are we increasing the chances that our children and grandchildren will experience the horrors of chemical, biological and nuclear war?


  8. ansonburlingame says:

    We all, hopefully, understand that deterrence worked against the Soviets to stop them from a conventional invasion of western Europe and/or a massive nuclear exchange during the Cold War. Such deterrence will still work between even a Putin led Russia trying to move back west, geopolicially. At least it will work as long as we sustain a nuclear deterrent capability. Geopolitical pressure from Russia (or China) will only be thru influence, “pressure” in hot spots, etc., but not all out confrontation for the foreseeable future as long as “reason” prevails.

    But deterrence has not yet worked with smaller countries with WMD of a sort. We will see what happens WHEN (not if, in my view) Iran crosses the possession of nuclear weapons threshold, not the use of nuclear weapons.

    Syria has no nuclear weapons (in part thanks to Israel strikes against nuclear facilities long ago) But Syria has massive stockpiles of chem (and maybe biological) weapons which threaten at least Israel. Actually they threaten Syria’s own people right now but we are frankly not exactly sure yet who has used them in Syria.

    So how should deterrence work in a moderan world with technology allowing smaller countries gain access to WMD? No one has figured that out, yet.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.