President Barack Obama ordered air strikes against ISIS targets inside Syria overnight. He received the full backing of Republican leaders in Congress. The attacks raise a number of military–and political–questions:
1. When did Congress authorize U.S. attacks in Syria? It didn’t. Last week Congress approved U.S. aid to Syrian rebel forces fighting against ISIS, but pointedly did not consider or authorize the broader use of force against ISIS inside Syria. The issue was purportedly put off until after November 4: “The issue of military intervention in Syria is likely to resurface shortly after the midterms,” the New York Times reported.
2. What steps were taken to minimize civilian casualties? We do not know, but the White House made a lot of noise about Palestinian casualties in Israel’s recent war against Hamas. The Israeli military took extreme steps to warn civilians to leave targeted buildings and areas, while Hamas deliberately used civilians as human shields. Unless the U.S. took similar steps to warn civilians, Obama risks looking like a hypocrite on the issue.
3. Why did the Obama administration telegraph the limited nature of the strikes? This was a main point of criticism overnight, as the U.S. assured the world that the airstrikes were limited and would ease off in future–effectively letting ISIS know that all it had to do was wait out this round, then go back to beheading as usual. There is no real clarity–even now–about who is doing the fighting and with what long-term objective.
4. Why did Republicans roll over right away? Republican leaders seem to believe that they will retake the Senate solely on the basis of public discontent over Obama’s performance on other issues. They are reluctant to risk a confrontation with the Commander-in-Chief before Election Day. Yet given the constitutional issues at stake–many of which are also at the heart of outrage over Obamacare and immigration–their weakness is odd.
Presumably the president will answer some of these questions in a statement from the White House Tuesday. Or perhaps he simply understands that appearing strong seems to be helping revive his low approval ratings.