The American public has clamored for President Obama to find a way to work with both parties in Congress, and the president finally obliged: Democrats and Republicans are striving together to save Obama from himself.
It won’t be easy. Obama is probably the only president ever to draw a foreign policy red line that he himself did not dare cross. His reversal on Syria, refusing to respond to the regime’s use of poison gas without a congressional green light, has triggered the strangest international crisis in memory.
For many months, Obama had said he would respond militarily if the embattled Damascus regime used its chemical arsenal. All summer, he remained stubbornly in denial that Syrian President Bashar Assad had done exactly that, until hundreds of people died in a predawn attack on insurgent-held suburbs on Aug. 21. Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, denounced that assault and pronounced the evidence of Assad’s responsibility incontrovertible. The president claimed he had the power to respond.
And then he didn’t. Obama reversed himself on Saturday and said he would not use force against Syria unless Congress voted to permit him to do so, even though he continues to insist he does not require any such permission.
This is a president who, time after time, has asserted the power to choose which laws, or portions of laws, his administration will enforce, on matters ranging from health care to immigration to marijuana. This is a president who claimed the right to make recess appointments without congressional consent, even when Congress was not in recess. With the situation in Syria, the president at least had ample precedent on his side. His predecessors in both parties have used military force nearly a dozen times, without first going to Congress, in cases when the United States was not directly attacked. The War Powers Resolution only requires a president to notify Congress of such action within 48 hours, and it requires military activity to cease within 60 days unless Congress consents. Within that time period, at least, Obama would for once have clearly been empowered to do what he said the situation urgently required.
Instead, Obama made a decision that defied all logic, especially for someone whose job description is “chief executive.” Knowing that the public is largely opposed to military action, a president who no longer has to face re-election tossed the question into the collective lap of 535 legislators, nearly all of whom do. Less than a week after Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron was rebuffed by his own Parliament, Obama gratuitously opted to follow his example.
Congress was not even in session when Obama called upon it to authorize him to do what he claimed he had the power to do anyway. Lawmakers had to rush back to Washington for briefings and hearings this week. Obama promptly departed Washington for a G-20 summit - a summit held, as it happens, in Russia, which has been Assad’s stalwart defender.
The only obvious winner in all this delay was Assad. The weeks of non-decision-making in the White House gave him ample time to hide his military assets and rally his supporters. Not that they need much rallying, after Obama made clear that his objective is not to topple the Syrian president, whose overriding goal is not to be toppled. Instead, Obama wants to send a message that use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Yet it is, in fact, being tolerated, whether Obama makes a show of firing a few missiles or not.
With the president away, his old and new congressional allies must explain to the American people why we don’t use email for sending messages and turn to military means to accomplish military ends. An unusual coalition of Republicans and Democrats has coalesced for the primary - if unstated - purpose of preventing the president of the United States from looking irredeemably foolish and weak, because such foolishness is degrading and such weakness is dangerous.
A decade ago, American troops turned Iraq upside down looking for chemical weapons that they never found. Obama and many of his supporters accordingly characterize the Iraq war as a failure. But Saddam Hussein, who started two wars and also gassed his own people, is not around anymore. Neither are his degenerate sons and heirs-apparent, Uday and Qusay. Ask the 80 percent of Iraqis who are Shiite or Kurdish whether they miss the Hussein clan, and you’ll get a different perspective on the merits of that U.S. intervention. The 2003 military assault achieved its aims; it was the aftermath that was mishandled.
Assad has removed any doubts about Syrian chemical weapons. A U.S. response aimed at toppling his regime, and declaring him and his co-conspirators war criminals, is about the only thing he needs to fear, and it is the one thing Obama has taken off the table. The ostensible reason is that we don’t like many of Assad’s opponents much better. We don’t have to like them, however, as long as they know they can’t hold the reins of state power if they use it to attack us. We can cite the example of the former Taliban rulers in Afghanistan. We also can be choosy about which parties we try to help to power in Syria - but first we have to get Assad out of the way.
The vacillating president finds himself relying on Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain, to rally the support he claims to need. At the same time, with many in his own party skeptical of military action (and loathe to even imply that George W. Bush might have been right about anything), the president’s odd claims about needing to send a message are drawing strangely contorted defenses. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents my Fort Lauderdale district and also chairs the Democratic National Committee, gave a twisted explanation of her position on CNN this week. She invoked her status as a Jew and as a mother, among other justifications, for firing cruise missiles at Syria. Likewise, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting House member who represents the District of Columbia, said some members of the Congressional Black Caucus will support Obama because he is the first African-American president. I can’t imagine a worse reason to support military action than the pigmentation of the person ordering it, but here we are.
The danger in allowing Obama to shy away from his own red line is that it tells the rest of the world not to take American deterrence seriously, at least as long as he is in office. We may not just be talking about poison gas wafting through the streets of Damascus. It could happen in Haifa, or Seoul. Watching Obama waffle on Syria tells leaders in Taipei and Beijing that the Taiwanese are probably on their own if the island’s fate is decided by force. It raises the risk of terrorists deploying abhorrent weaponry in India or Pakistan, or of that weaponry’s use in military conflict between those two countries. Similarly, Parliament’s rebuff to the U.K.’s Cameron must have drawn attention in Buenos Aires and in the Falklands. We have no Maggie Thatcher on the scene today, nor a Ronald Reagan.
It is too late to restore all the credibility Obama has squandered, but members of Congress are right to do their best. Like it or not, Obama is the only president we have. U.S. military power has not always been used wisely or well, and there is no guarantee it will be well used this time, either. But for all its failings, through the Cold War and since, the deterrent effect of American military force has saved countless (and uncountable) lives through aggression avoided or repelled. It has rallied allies to our side from Warsaw to Tokyo. It is too important to fritter away. Preventing that outcome has drawn both sides together in Washington, in what may be the singular achievement of this president’s second term.
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