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