The Spaghettification of U.S. Foreign Policy: How Many Cases Can Obama Make for War with Syria?

This is what desperation looks like.

With the White House selling an increasingly skeptical Congress and public on airstrikes in Syria, President Obama and his lieutenants have rolled out just about every possible argument to marshal support on the Hill ahead of Obama's big Syria speech on Tuesday evening. It's akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Is Syria's use of chemical weapons a threat to U.S. national security? You bet, says National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Does the United States have a moral obligation to enforce international norms against chemical weapons use? It certainly does, says White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Does the current crisis bear a frightening resemblance to Munich circa 1938? Most certainly, says Secretary of State John Kerry. And is there a need to send a strong message to the mullahs in Tehran about their nuclear ambitions? Damn straight, says U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.

Welcome to the spaghettification of U.S. foreign policy.

A case in point: the appearance Sunday of McDonough, the White House chief of staff, on NBC's Meet the Press. First McDonough noted that Congress's decision on Syria "will be listened to very clearly in Damascus, but not just in the Damascus -- also in Tehran ... and among Lebanese Hezbollah." Three questions later, the proposal for strikes was all about the importance of discouraging chemical weapons use. "This is a targeted, limited consequential action to reinforce this prohibition against these weapons that unless we reinforce this prohibition, will proliferate and threaten our friends and our allies." Lest the administration be accused of short-sightedness, McDonough was quick to emphasize that strikes would hasten the arrival of a long-term solution to the conflict. "And our effort to target this effectively will only help that political diplomatic resolution."

Got all that? To recap, a limited U.S. military engagement will prevent the use of chemical weapons elsewhere, encourage a political resolution to the conflict, and discourage Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But wait, that's not all. "Israel is at risk, Jordan is at risk, Turkey is at risk, the region is at risk," Kerry proclaimed on Meet the Press the prior week. Then, on Saturday, Kerry went so far as to say that "this is our Munich moment" -- a reference to the 1938 deal in Munich that ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in an attempt to avoid war. According to the White House, however, these risks aren't limited to bloodshed inside Syria. An unpunished Assad regime, Rice, the national security advisor, argued on Monday, puts "Americans at risk of chemical attacks, targeted at our soldiers and diplomats in the region and potentially our citizens at home" (McDonough made a similar point on the Sunday talk shows).

Not only is the White House raising the specter of the Holocaust, it is also warning that Assad's chemical weapons use threatens the U.S. homeland.

The administration's case has evolved significantly since John Kerry first sketched out the rationale for carrying out a punitive strike on Syria in humanitarian terms. "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry said on Aug. 26. "It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable." That moral outrage remains -- as when Rice said Monday that "as a parent I cannot look at those pictures, those little children laying on the ground ... and not think of my own two kids" -- but in selling the argument to an unconvinced Congress, every argument possible has gotten tacked on as well.

The White House, of course, would contend that, taken together, all these arguments add up to a compelling case for intervening militarily in Syria. Its critics would contend that they are emblematic of a muddled rationale for war. Perhaps by Tuesday, when Obama addresses the nation he hopes to once more lead into conflict, the White House will have thrown enough spaghetti against the wall to have found an argument that sticks.

Or, just maybe, war will be averted by the one argument that wasn't in the White House's long list of talking points.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images


Who to Watch in Congress This Week on Syria

As of Monday morning, the majority of U.S. legislators still have yet to announce their position on whether they'll vote to authorize the use of military force against Syria. They're running out of time to come to a decision, though; the resolution passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday and a vote by the full Senate is expected this week, with the House likely to follow soon after.

Some members of Congress may just be keeping their opinions to themselves. Congressional offices have reported a sharp uptick in phone calls from constituents, almost all of them critical of a strike against Syria. The incentive to voice opposition to the resolution is stronger at this point -- both because it resonates with popular opinion and because it serves as a counterpoint to the Obama administration's campaign for strikes, which has included congressional hearings featuring Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey; public speeches (U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power spoke last week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak today, and President Obama will deliver a speech tomorrow); private meetings; and appearances on the Sunday talk shows.

As both sides vie to sway the undecideds, here are the key congressional players to watch this week:

Reps. John Boehner (R-OH) and Eric Cantor (R-VA): The leaders of the Republican Party in the House both back the authorization for the use of military force. Neither seems committed to whipping the vote, arguing instead that the onus for making the case for intervention falls squarely on Obama, but others in the GOP may follow Boehner and Cantor's lead. On the Senate side, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been conspicuously quiet about how he'll vote this week, a move that has been attributed to the Senate minority leader not wanting to be a prominent supporter of an unpopular measure while facing a challenging primary campaign.

Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Gerald Connolly (D-VA): Van Hollen and Connolly have introduced an alternative resolution that tweaks the language of the proposed authorization of force to limit the potential scale of a U.S. intervention, stipulating that any intervention will not include ground forces and that airstrikes must end within 60 days.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA): Pelosi has been a vocal proponent of Obama's proposal and has pushed back against alternatives like the one floated by Van Hollen and Connolly. "Run for president, or join the military," she told TIME, "but I don't know that we should be doing that in Congress, determining how many strikes it should take to take somebody out."

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan: Duckworth, an Iraq veteran and double amputee, is staunchly opposed to an intervention in Syria. In a statement issued by her office, she writes, "Until I feel it's imperative to our national security, I will not support pre-emptive intervention in Syria. America shouldn't bear the burden unilaterally, especially since none of our allies, including those in the region, have committed to action." Of the 16 veterans of the U.S. wars of the past decade in Congress, only two have voiced their support for an intervention, while 10, including Duckworth, are openly opposed; four others -- Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), Steve Stivers (R-OH), and Scott Perry (R-PA) -- are undecided and could sway others with their inclinations.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY): A Marine veteran, Grimm initially supported Obama's plan to strike Syria, but has since reversed his stance. "Now that the Assad regime has seen our playbook and has been given enough time to prepare and safeguard potential targets, I do not feel that we have enough to gain as a nation by moving forward with this attack on our own," he explained. He has also cited the vocal opposition of his constituency.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): Markey, who filled John Kerry's seat when Kerry became secretary of state, voted "present" when the Syria resolution passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, siding neither with the 10 senators who passed it or the seven who voted against it. Markey has since said that he had not been able to adequately assess the available intelligence, but that he will have come to a decision by the time of the full Senate vote.

The Congressional Black Caucus: The 39 voting representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus have been instructed to "limit public comment until [they] receive additional details," a spokesman for caucus Chairwoman Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) told Foreign Policy last week. Fudge reportedly remains undecided, but according to the Hill's whip count, at least three members of the caucus are leaning in favor of a strike and five are poised to vote against it. National Security Advisor Susan Rice will meet privately with members of the caucus on Monday to make the administration's case for intervening militarily in Syria.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images