Editor’s Note: as per my earlier announcement, I am phasing out of the Duck of Minerva. But my blogging won’t officially end for around another two weeks. That means that, although administrative inquiries should be sent to other team members, I have not gone cold turkey on the writing front.

I remain uncertain as to the wisdom of any kind of US-centered military action in Syria. But if the Obama Administration is going to act, then it needs a broad Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Indeed, today has seen significant concern about the breadth of the proposed AUMF. Jack Goldsmith writes that:

(1) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to take sides in the Syrian Civil War, or to attack Syrian rebels associated with al Qaeda, or to remove Assad from power?  Yes, as long as the President determines that any of these entities has a (mere) connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and that the use of force against one of them would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons.  It is very easy to imagine the President making such determinations with regard to Assad or one or more of the rebel groups.

(2) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to use force against Iran or Hezbollah, in Iran or Lebanon?  Again, yes, as long as the President determines that Iran or Hezbollah has a (mere) a connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and the use of force against Iran or Hezbollah would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons.  Again, very easy to imagine.

As the history of the 9/11 AUMF shows, and as prior AUMFs show (think about the Gulf of Tonkin), a President will interpret an AUMF for all it is worth, and then some.  The proposed Syrian AUMF is worth a lot, for it would (in sum) permit the President to use military force against any target anywhere in the world (including Iran or Lebanon) as long as the President, in his discretion, determines that the the target has a connection to WMD in the Syrian civil war and the use of force has the purpose of preventing or deterring (broad concepts) the use or proliferation of WMDs in, to, or from Syria, or of protecting the U.S. and its allies from the mere threat (again, a broad concept) of use or proliferation of WMDs connected to the Syrian conflict.

Congress needs to be careful about what it authorizes.

The problem here is that firing a salvo of cruise missiles or engaging in a short-term bombing campaign is unlikely to achieve very much. If Assad sees the use of chemical weapons as vital to the survival of his regime and his family, then a few punitive strikes aren’t likely to have much effect. Even if they do convince Assad not to use proscribed weapons, the regime enjoys plenty of ways to engage in mass killings  without crossing that particular red line.

In fact, successful compellence against Syria almost certainly requires a credible threat of escalation. The biggest threat posed by potential US intervention? That it directly or indirectly leads to the overthrow of the current regime. Crafting an AUMF that undercuts that threat will almost certainly be counterproductive when it comes to the Administration’s preferred outcome in Syria: forcing the regime to accept a negotiated settlement with the rebels.

But what if such an outcome isn’t possible? Then we’re left with two possibilities.

  1. US military strikes will be nothing more than a pointless “punitive” attack–one that increases the human and financial costs of the conflict.
  2. The US will, if it wants to terminate the civil war in a way favorable to US and humanitarian interests, need to bring about the collapse of the Assad regime.

Put simply, if the Obama Administration wants to attack Syria–and if Congress is going to authorize such an attack–then it needs to be prepared for the contingency of broad-based US intervention. Given that the tendrils of the conflict have already extended beyond Syria’s borders–into Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere–that requires a broad AUMF.

If all of this makes you uncomfortable, it should. This century has seen three examples of major US interventions that, to varying degrees, went wrong. In each case–Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya–overly optimistic assessments of the ease of US intervention played a critical role in the outcome. Nobody needs Syria to join this list.