Photo by: Craig Ruttle/ CP Photo
If I were very optimistic, I'd say President Obama is hoping Congress will follow the example of the British Parliament and vote against his proposed military strike on Syria.
It would let him off the hook. He could avoid an illegal, dangerous, immoral military assault and say it's Congress's fault.
Unfortunately, I don't think optimism is warranted.
There is little question the Obama administration was blindsided by British MPs' vote against war. Then NATO made it clear it would not participate, and the Arab League refused to endorse a military strike. France may stay in Obama's corner, but that won't be enough.
And Congress was getting restive; more than 200 members signed one letter or another demanding the White House consult with them. Too many pesky journalists were reprinting Obama's own words from 2007, when the then-candidate said, "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."
All of that slowed the drive toward war a bit. But it didn't stop. And that's a problem. Because whatever Congress may decide, a U.S. military strike against Syria would still be illegal, immoral and dangerous, even reckless in the region and around the world. Congress needs to say no.
The United Nations Charter, the fundamental core of international law, is unequivocal about when military force is legal and when it isn't. Only two things make an act of war legal: immediate self-defence, which clearly is not the case for the U.S. vis à vis Syria. Horrific chemical weapons devastated Syrian, not American lives.
The other is if the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, authorizes the use of force in response to a threat to international peace and security. That's the authorization President Obama knows he cannot get. Russia and China would certainly veto it, but right now a British veto would also be a possibility if Cameron opted to represent the will of his people.
The problem for the president is that he's still determined to use military force despite international law. He says he doesn't need that authority, that maybe he'll use the 1999 Kosovo precedent to "go around" the Security Council. But the 1999 U.S.-NATO assault on Serbia and Kosovo was illegal; faced with a sure Russian veto, Bill Clinton simply announced that he wouldn't ask for UN permission. Instead, he got permission from NATO's high command. Nothing in international law allows NATO to stand in for the Security Council.
The Charter was specifically designed to make it difficult to get authorization for military force - its whole raison d'être is to stand against the scourge of war. That means members of Congress have the chance to prevent another illegal U.S. war.
More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in this civil war so far, and hundreds more in what appears to have been (remember, we still don't know for sure) a chemical attack. U.S. cruise missile strikes won't bring any of them back, and more important, won't protect any Syrian civilians from further threat.
On the contrary, low-ranking conscript troops and civilians are almost certain to be injured or killed. Reports out of Syria indicate that military offices are being moved into populated areas; that shouldn't come as a surprise given the nature of the Syrian regime. But the knowledge makes those contemplating military force even more culpable.
A military strike on Syria would increase levels of violence and instability inside the country, in the region and around the world. Reports are already coming in of thousands of Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon to "stand with their government" when the country is under attack. It could lead to greater support for the brutal regime in Damascus.
In Kosovo, more Kosovars were forcibly expelled from their homes by the Serbian regime after the NATO bombing than before. Syrian civilians could face similar retaliation from the government.
A U.S. strike would do nothing to strengthen the secular armed opposition, still largely based in Turkey and Jordan, let alone the heroic but weakened non-violent democratic opposition forces. Those who would gain would be the most extreme Islamist forces within the opposition, like the Jabhat al-Nusra, that are closest to al Qaeda.
Crucially, a military strike without United Nations authorization undermines the urgent need for serious, tough diplomacy to end the Syrian war. The U.S. just cancelled a meeting with Russia to talk about negotiations; a couple of months ago Russia cancelled one. Both countries must be pushed to arrange and implement an immediate ceasefire and an arms embargo on all sides.
And finally, what happens the day after? If Syria retaliates against a missile strike - with an attack on a U.S warship, on U.S. troops in the region or against Israel - do we really think the U.S. would simply stand back and say, "No, this was just a one-time surgical strike."
What should the U.S. do? Stop acting on the false dichotomy of military force or nothing. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime. Whoever used such a weapon should be held accountable. So what's next?
First, do no harm. Don't kill more people in the name of enforcing an international norm.
Move to support international jurisdiction and enforcement, including calling for a second UN investigation. Recommend that whoever is found responsible be brought to justice in the Hague at the International Criminal Court. The president should announce an immediate campaign not only to get the Senate to ratify the International Criminal Court, but also to strengthen the Court and provide it with enforcement capacity.
Move urgently toward a ceasefire and arms embargo in Syria. Russia must stop and must push Iran to stop arming and funding the Syrian regime. The U.S. must stop and must push Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and others to stop arming and funding the opposition, including extremist elements.
That won't be easy. For Washington, it may require telling the Saudis and Qataris that if they don't stop, the U.S. will cancel all weapons contracts with them.
Congress needs to stand against further escalation of the Syrian civil war by voting no on any authorization for U.S. military strikes.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.