The Russian government and the Assad regime recently offered to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons to “international” control, in exchange for the US and its allies foregoing a military strike on Assad’s forces. Obviously, the offer raises many issues, including whether Russia’s and Assad’s assurances can be trusted and effectively verified. In this post, I only want to consider the implications for the authorization for the use of military force currently under consideration by Congress.
As I see it, Congress now has four options. First, it can simply pass something like the AUMF that was recently adopted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, regardless of the Russian offer. If President Obama decides to accept the offer, he doesn’t have to actually use the authority that Congress grants him. This would essentially leave the final decision up to the president.
The second option is to definitively vote down the present AUMF draft, and refuse to pass any other one. For those, like myself, who were skeptical of the desirability of launching an intervention even before the Russian offer, this might be an attractive choice. If an intervention was undesirable even before the Russian offer, it is even less desirable now. If the Russian proposal turns out to be a fraud, we would be no worse off than if we chose not to intervene in the absence of that proposal. If it really does lead Assad to give up some or all of his chemical weapons, that’s icing on the cake.
Third, Congress could issue a conditional AUMF, which would allow the president to use force only if the Russian offer turns out to be inadequate in some way. Obviously, the devil here would be in the details. Congress would have to decide what qualifies as an adequate offer in terms of the weapons covered, verification arrangements, and other issues. Of course Congress could just leave it up to the President to determine what counts as an valid offer, perhaps merely requiring him to certify to Congress that he considers the Russian-Syrian offer insufficient before launching an attack. That was the approach taken by the 2002 Iraq AUMF, which essentially left it up to the president to determine whether Saddam Hussein had sufficiently complied with demands to allow inspection and removal of any WMD he might possess. In essence, a conditional AUMF which left it up to the president to determine whether the condition has been met would not be much different from passing an AUMF without any triggering conditions at all.
Finally, Congress could take a wait and see approach. It could postpone voting on an AUMF until the negotiations with Russia and Syria are over. If Obama concludes an agreement with those countries, there would be no need to consider an AUMF. If he doesn’t, Congress could quickly return to the issue.
I tentatively think that Congress should pursue either the second or fourth options. I am skeptical about the first option for reasons that were valid even before the Russian offer, and seem equally valid now. I am also skeptical that Congress could craft a good conditional AUMF, especially without knowing how the negotiations turn out. Voting an AUMF down now might well be a good decision, since it would definitively foreclose what still strikes me as a dubious intervention. On the other hand, there might be some merit to maintaining ambiguity for a time, so as to extract some possible concessions from the Russians and Assad.