The Avoider-in-Chief

“I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions,” President Obama declared in his Saturday speech. “Avoider-in-Chief,” NPR’s reporter immediately labeled him.

imagesAfter a really tough address by Secretary Kerry, laying out the Syrian regime’s monstrous crimes against humanity, the compelling evidence for its guilt, and the moral necessity for a response on behalf of the international community* – and then table-pounding language in Obama’s own speech – he winds up not announcing action but passing the buck to Congress!

The President has (as he said) undoubted authority for the kind of limited strike contemplated, without Congressional approval. Even the 1973 War Powers Resolution only requires notifying Congress after acting, and Congressional authorization only for military action lasting over 60 days.

images-2Indeed, so limited is the action contemplated that it probably wouldn’t achieve even its very limited objective. Unless the punishment is severe enough to curb Assad’s war-making ability, his regime may well calculate that the price is worth paying for a free hand for whatever atrocities it takes to crush opposition. And of course there are risks to us. However, after drawing a “red line” and making such a big stink about this, inaction is not an option.

Obama’s seeking a vote by the people’s representatives might sound like democratic scrupulousness. But, to begin with, it flagrantly contradicts his own words that he wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions. It shows unwillingness to take responsibility for action he says is both necessary and within his power. It sends the world a message clear as mud.

Unknown-1Secondly, it sets a highly undesirable precedent, undermining presidential authority as commander-in-chief. While in the past, major military undertakings, like both Iraq wars, have been preceded by congressional votes, that’s never been true of limited actions like this. (Such as Obama’s own Libya intervention, much more extensive.) The idea that these actions too should now have congressional authorization – even though not legally required – will unduly tie the hands of future presidents. An America tied up in knots over every little military action is not good for world security.

And thirdly, of course, Congress may well balk. Most voters are dubious of any involvement in Syria. Many Democrats hate all military actions and tend to oppose them. Many Republicans hate endorsing anything Obama wants, and welcome any opportunity to stymie him. Others, like McCain (and me) deem Obama’s plan inadequate. The British parliament humiliated Prime Minister Cameron by rejecting his similar request. We’re told this influenced Obama’s change of heart. So now he wants to subject himself to the same humiliation?

We know how dysfunctional our Congress is nowadays. It won’t even return till September 9. Ample time for critics to gin up vocal opposition. images-1Given the acrid political environ-ment, this thing is bound to descend into a swamp of contentiousness, political point-scoring and backbiting. For the President to argue strongly for action – and then to needlessly cast its fate into that swamp – what was he thinking?

And if Congress refuses – then what? For Obama to go ahead anyway would beg the question of why he asked for a Congressional vote in the first place. But if he was too wimpy to act without such a vote, surely he won’t have the balls to act afterward in defiance of Congress.

The implications of inaction, for the global order, and America’s role in upholding it, would be just too awful to contemplate. UnknownTo end up doing nothing in this situation would be catastrophic for American credibility, and world morality. Yet Obama is risking this outcome, so unnecessarily, because without the security blanket of Congressional backing he’s too squeamish to exercise his authority to do what he says is right and necessary. It’s a ghastly, appalling misjudgment.

*And I repeat, as I have for two years now: where is the International Criminal Court?

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9 Responses to “The Avoider-in-Chief”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    “Most voters are dubious of any involvement in Syria. Many Democrats hate all military actions and tend to oppose them.”
    Me too! Please Mr. President, proceed with great caution and seek a united nations approach, and not the big stick USA-military way. You can bet the military-industrial complex is chomping at the bit to make money on this one.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    The UN is useless because of the Russo-Chinese Bad Guys Protection League. We should not make world morality their hostage.

  3. Bumba Says:

    Yes, we’re paying for Congress’ dysfunctionality. Why can’t they come back early from their vacations if they’re so outraged?
    Again, in the Middle East, the prognosis is gloomy with or without bombings. Assad and his ruling class have already killed 100,000 people – with bombs and bullets.

  4. Bob Schwarer Says:

    It’s already too late to do anything. Reaction must be as close to instantaneous as possible. Anything this late just looks as if it a attack for the sake of an attack.

  5. frank S. Robinson Says:

    Bob, some truth in that; another reason why stretching out this process is such a bad idea. It certainly gives Assad the opportunity to utilize his military assets, before we take them out, to kill many more people.

  6. Tony Peters Says:

    To quote Barack Obama himself – “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” (As it happens in his interventionist action against Libya, he in fact already violated this, so you can hardly accuse him of ‘wimpiness’). Why do you feel so strongly that the USA should embroil itself in another foreign war? Haven’t we learned anything from the trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the Iraq exercise in stupidity? Why not take care of US domestic issues first instead of meddling further and fomenting yet more anti-American sentiment? Action taken against the Assad regime will be of questionable value, potentially assisting rebel forces who have an Islamist agenda arguably even more extreme than Assad’s.

  7. frank S. Robinson Says:

    Tony, my answers to your questions are set forth in previous blog posts:

  8. Pedro Dunn Says:

    If the United States needs to attack Syria, President Obama needs to ask Congress for a declaration of war. That worked in 1941, and produced a conclusive result; every conflict since has been otherwise: no declaration of war, and most had no conclusive result. The liberation of Kuwait, along with regime change in Lebanon (1958), Panama and Grenada could be described as successful. Korea, Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan still feature problems that draw American blood and treasure with no promise of lasting results.

    It might benefit Americans to recall General Smedley Butler, who was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor, and his hostility to undeclared wars and foreign adventures. Butler hardly qualified as a weak-kneed pacifist, but he looked back on the many pre-WW II interventions via undeclared wars and questioned not only their legality, but even their utility.

    We might even want to dust off the Ludlow Act, to protect the 01% of America that does the fighting and bleeding, from our Republicrat leaders who gleefully send them into endless struggles while passing the costs onto future generations.

  9. frank S. Robinson Says:

    A “declaration of war” is archaic and merely symbolic. There is nothing about a “declaration of war” that tends to make military action more successful than otherwise. Congress, in the War Powers Resolution, clarified — indeed, restricted — the president’s authority as commander-in-chief to order military action. But pursuant to that legislation, it is clear that he has authority to do what he proposes, regarding Syria, with no Congressional vote.

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