Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a Senate committee on Wednesday that the US would “seek permission” from international organizations before committing the military to war. He also made it clear that the Obama administration does not feel it necessary to “inform” Congress or get their authorization for military action.
The secretary was responding to a question about potential US military action in Syria — a pertinent query since President Obama recently authorized the Pentagon to look at what kind of missions our intervention in Syria might require.
The prospect of some kind of international response to the massacres in Syria is growing as several countries are calling for arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and there has been talk of forcing the issue of humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people in Homs and other flashpoints of the rebellion. And as refugees flee from Homs, overburdening Lebanon and Turkey, tales are being told of the horrific attacks made by President Bashar Assad’s troops on civilian enclaves and the atrocities committed by by the dreaded Shabiha militia.
Several high profile defections – both military and civilian government officials — have given a boost to the FSA as well as the civilian opposition, the Syrian National Council, who is still trying to get organized. Indeed, the inability of the opposition to present a united front, as well as uncertainty surrounding the makeup of the FSA has made the rest of the world cautious about giving arms and other support to the rebel cause.
This was the basis of questions directed at Secretary Panetta at the Senate hearing; how would the Obama administration go about fulfilling its obligation under the War Powers Act? In a testy exchange, Senator Jeff Sessions asked Panetta, “We spend our time worrying about the U.N., the Arab League, NATO and too little time, in my opinion, worrying about the elected representatives of the United States. As you go forward, will you consult with the United States Congress?”
Panetta’s response surprised many on the committee: “You know, our goal would be to seek international permission. And we would come to the Congress and inform you and determine how best to approach this, whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress.”
Sessions gave Panetta several opportunities to clarify his remarks, but each time he was asked about informing Congress or getting their authorization for military action, he reiterated his position that the US couldn’t go to war unless it received some kind of mandate from the international community and, even more shockingly, that the White House was under no obligation to get the permission of Congress.
Democrat Carl Levin tried to give Panetta a chance to walk back his statement about the US needing permission to commit our troops. “I don’t think the word permission is appropriate even in that context. By the way, I think what — you really corrected it when you said a legal basis in international law would help you achieve an international coalition.” Panetta responded, “That’s correct” — but it wasn’t. The Secretary never clarified his statement and stuck to his original premise.
An unidentified spokesman at the Pentagon tried to undo the damage: “He was re-emphasizing the need for an international mandate. We are not ceding U.S. decision-making authority to some foreign body,” he said. That’s a relief to hear but it doesn’t change the fact that given several opportunities to alter his position, Panetta insisted that the US needed an “international mandate” to go to war.
Just as troubling was the notion that the administration doesn’t feel the need to inform, or get authorization for war, from Congress. Senator Sessions spoke for many on the committee when he said Panetta’s comments were “very revealing of the mindset” of the administration and that Panetta didn’t seem to understand that his comments went against the fundamentals of our government. The administration already violated the law when, during the Libyan campaign, the president refused to seek congressional approval for continued US participation in the international coalition. This despite the fact that the War Powers Act stipulates that if US troops are committed for more than 60 days, the president must get the permission of Congress.
President Obama has said that it would be a “mistake” to intervene in Syria at this time. But he has directed the Pentagon to deliver a “commander’s assessment” of what kinds of missions with which the military might be tasked and what resources would be required to meet the demands of those missions. There has been little stomach in the international community to even discuss armed intervention, but some military analysts suggest that a coalition could establish “no kill zones” in addition to “no fly zones” and “humanitarian corridors” that would protect civilians.
As Aaron David Miller, writing in Foreign Policy notes, each of these ideas represent “an open-ended, ill-advised slide to deeper military involvement without any rigorous calculations of the costs.” While there have been calls to arm the FSA from some Gulf states, most observers believe without knowing more about the rebel army, there is no telling whose hands those arms will end up in. British Foreign Secretary William Hague cautions that it is possible the international community would be arming al-Qaeda in Syria. Responding to a query about arms going to al-Qaeda, Hague said, “That is a consideration in trying to provide practical assistance, it is one of the difficulties we have.” He added, “The opposition has not formed a united group.”
And that’s why even the non-military aid proposed by Secretary Panetta and others also carries risks. The Secretary was suggesting we send communications equipment and other non-lethal supplies to the rebels. But with the Syrian opposition disorganized, quarreling, and disconnected from the young activists who are running the street protests, it’s hard to see how that aid could be put to good use. Rivalries in the Free Syrian Army between commanders, as well as factions in the civilian opposition, would almost certainly fight over any aid that was given, thus fracturing the anti-Assad forces even further.
While the debate continues at the UN and in various capitals around the world, the horrific nature of Assad’s assault on Homs is just beginning to become known. UN aid workers entered the smashed neighborhood of Baba Amr but there was nobody to help; the sprawling neighborhood where the FSA held out for two weeks against Assad’s tanks and artillery was deserted.
Refugees entering Lebanon have related tales of massacres and atrocities at the hands of Assad’s security forces. One woman told the story of her 12-year-old son being rounded up with 36 other men the day after the FSA retreated. “His throat was cut,” she told the BBC. Another town near Homs was besieged and more than 40 men and boys were arrested, tortured, and summarily executed.
But it was at a military hospital in Homs where smuggled video showed the truly inhuman nature of Assad’s crackdown. The BBC reports on the video, taken by a hospital employee recently:
The footage…shows wards full of wounded men, blindfolded and shackled to their beds.
Some appear to bear marks of extreme beating, and the hospital employee said many patients were whipped and beaten in their beds.
No one questions that Assad’s crackdown is brutal and that his forces have committed war crimes. This may be one reason why 4 more brigadier generals have defected to the rebels. If some of Assad’s commanders can see the end of the regime, they may wish to avoid trials at the Hague for committing crimes against humanity and, like some Nazi generals at the end of World War II, try to establish a record that might mitigate any penalties that would be assessed against them.
It is doubtful that their actions will save them if they have been a part of this atrocity. And with the bloodshed likely to get worse before it gets better, pressure will continue to build on the UN, NATO, and especially the United States, to intervene in order to protect the innocent. In an election year, with a possible conflict with Iran on the horizon, and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, would president Obama commit American troops to another mission in the Middle East — presumably after getting “permission” from the UN to do so — with the potential down side far outweighing whatever good we could do?
If he does, it is likely that Congress won’t have anything to say about it.