President Obama did not seek Congressional approval for military action against Libya, and until last weekend, he was firmly on course to order some sort of reprisal against the Assad regime in Syria without going to Congress. Then, on Saturday, August 31, Obama suddenly and unexpectedly reversed course, announcing that he would ” seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.” Since then, there has been much speculation as to why Obama changed his mind.
I think we now have the answer. You are no doubt aware of news reports of threatened retaliation by Iran and others in the event of a Syrian strike. In the most horrifying instance, Iranian cleric Alireza Forghani–who, there is reason to believe, spoke with the approval of Iran’s rulers–vowed that in case of an attack on Assad:
In just 21 hours [after the attack on Syria], a family member of every U.S. minister [department secretary], U.S. ambassadors, U.S. military commanders around the world will be abducted. And then 18 hours later, videos of their amputation will be spread [around the world].
He also threatened that one of Obama’s daughters would be abducted and raped by terrorists. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported more threats:
The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region.
These threats have been reported publicly only in recent days, but when would they have become known to President Obama? On September 5, the Daily Caller reported that Forghani issued his statement “last week.” The date when our intelligence agencies intercepted the Iranian message on Iraq has not been publicly reported, to my knowledge, but the Journal said yesterday that it was “intercepted in recent days.” So the timing fits: it seems probable that Obama became aware of the threats of retaliation that have been reported (and, perhaps, others that have not been made public) last week; likely, late last week.
Isn’t this the most plausible explanation of why Obama changed his mind about Congress? If sending a few cruise missiles into Syria was a symbolic act, without serious consequences, like blowing up an aspirin factory in Sudan, then Obama was happy to go it alone. But if there was a possibility of major blowback, not just from an isolated terrorist or two but coordinated by Tehran, the situation would have seemed entirely different. In the event of a significant retaliatory response, Obama would not want to be out on a limb by himself on Syria. Rather, he would want it to be clear that the Syrian intervention was a decision for which the entire U.S. government was responsible, including some Republicans (like, say, John McCain). This conclusion is even stronger, given the risk that a significant retaliation traceable to Iran would escalate tensions with that nation and could lead to a broader and far more substantial conflict. In this event, Obama most certainly would not want to be seen to have triggered the conflagration by himself.
I think the inference that Obama changed his mind about going to Congress for authorization because he learned of credible threats of retaliation orchestrated by Tehran is very powerful. What is still an open question, in my mind, is whether Obama really wants Congress to say Yes. Certainly there is reason to believe that he does: his minions lobbied for a favorable vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he will give a speech on Tuesday that apparently will try to convince voters to support an attack. But he has done almost nothing to lobby House members, and it seems a foregone conclusion that the House will vote No. What will Obama do then? If he cancels the attack, many will conclude that going to Congress was Obama’s way of saying, Let’s call the whole thing off.
PAUL ADDS: I hope that President Obama did not base any decision on the articulation of a lurid revenge fantasy. The Iranian government has no interest in seeing an Obama daughter raped. Its interest is in U.S. inaction — against its proxy in Syria and, above all, against its own nuclear facilities.
Iran may hope that over-the-top threats against the U.S. serve the first part of its interest in U.S. inaction. But carrying out those threats would cut against the second, more vital, part.
In addition, it seems to me that if the administration took any Iranian threat seriously, John Kerry and the other witnesses wouldn’t have brushed the prospect of Iranian retaliation aside during their testimony to Congress. If the U.S. does bomb Syria and Iran does retaliate, the administration will suffer greatly for having discounted Iranian threats during the debate on whether to intervene in Syria.