Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Dear Congress: Please Make President Obama Look Bad on Syria (Even if Your Reasons for Doing So Are Wrong)

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

To Senators Roberts and Moran and Representative Pompeo,

Sometime in the next week or so, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will schedule votes on whether or not Congress will give its authorization (or, depending on who you talk to or what the language of the coming resolution may include, "support") for President Obama to go forward with the plan which he and his security team have clearly already decided upon: to strategically bomb certain military sites in Syria as a response to the information (which they, at least, are certain of) that the Syrian government of Bashar Hafez al-Assad has used, in violation of widely accepted principles of international law, chemical weapons like sarin gas to kill hundreds of civilian supporters of the rebellion against his rule which he currently is fighting. Since you're my senators and my local representative here in the 4th congressional district in the state of Kansas, I thought I'd share my opinion about this upcoming vote with you. I think you should embarrass President Obama, and give him a big "no."

Some part of all of you, I strongly suspect, already wants to do this. After all, this is something President Obama wants, and agreeing with him on really anything at all is a guaranteed loser with a decent chunk of the Kansas electorate. This suggests that voting against whatever the resolution ultimately says is plain old smart constituent service, not to mention a way to burnish your bona fides as solid and faithful conservative Kansas Republicans. All you need to do is cook up some talking points which explain why Obama and his team don't understand what you think they should understand about the war in Syria, and hence can't possibly be trusted to manage any kind of military action at all, and you'd be good to go. That's justification isn't, in my view, remotely accurate, but if you want to run that way, it'll at least mean you'll be voting the way I think you should, so I won't complain.

Of course, that will put you at odds with your own party leadership, with Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor climbing on board the president's bandwagon, and Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham warning all their fellow Republicans of the "catastrophic" consequences of a no vote. I suppose one way to negotiate this would be to follow along with the lead that you've already laid out, Rep. Pompeo; make all the appropriate neoconservative noises about the need for the United States to develop a "more vigorous, much more robust" plan of action in Syria, one that presumably would go beyond Obama's stated intention to become the world's international-law-enforcer and would likely instead militarily obligate us to real action in the Syrian civil war, and then vote against whatever the resolution actually says, because it doesn't go far enough. In my view, this justification is even worse than the previous one, but at least it would result in a no vote, so I'll accept it.

I suppose it's possible that you may feel inclined to vote no because you've been tempted by the isolationist, anti-war position of Senator Rand Paul & Co. This probably isn't something you'll want to admit to, because while the Kansas Republican Party obviously values the libertarian money and influence of Koch Industries and Americans For Prosperity, actually identifying with any of their ideological principles--in this case, that America shouldn't be an empire, and that no large institution (including the U.S. military and/or our intelligence community!) should ever be trusted--can complicate things when it comes to striking deals in Washington, or maintaining your image in the Kansas public eye as a mainstream, patriotic, socially conservative Republican. As for myself, well, I'm not at all on board with that whole movement, but there's more than a little of it which I have come to admire, and so if that's what leads you to vote the way I'd prefer, I'm all in favor.

What kind of reasons am I more in favor of? Ones that acknowledge that the situation in Syria is a tragic, terrible mess, with neither side representing the sort of interests or ideas that warrant American military involvement. Ones that recognize that labeling the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" which no civilized can cross without suffering retributionary punishment is, without a united international community, an arbitrary and essentially unenforceable standard, one that no nation which doesn't claim (as I should hope the United States has gotten tired of claiming by now!) for itself full-fledged imperial responsibilities for the world ought to make. Ones that admit--as I, a former liberal internationalist hawk, someone who will probably always find Wilsonian humanitarianism at least faintly appealing, has nonetheless learned to admit--that while of course inaction is itself an affirmative choice, one that carries with it all sorts of what-might-have-been burdens, that fact isn't alone sufficient reason to feel impelled to do something (anything!) in response to an obvious evil. Invoking the "responsibility to protect" rightly directs us towards an engagement with a distant tragedy; it does not require any particular response to said tragedy...especially when, as is the case with America's track record towards military adventures, there is good reason to believe such a military response will not only fail to be thoughtfully limited, but will also be corrupted by our own oversized, wanna-be-but-not-really imperial baggage.

Most of all, I'd like to see a no vote in Congress based on a refusal to continue in the decades-long abandonment of Congressional responsibility for the military actions of our national government. I am not naive here; I realize that as much as I might wish to have a political culture and a constitutional order which takes carefully and literally the idea that the legislative branch, and the legislative branch alone, carries the responsibility for authorizing when and how American soldiers will kill and be killed, I'm not going to get it. Presidents have been assuming for themselves an expansive reading of their authority as commander-in-chief since the beginning of American history--and even they hadn't, the global powers and obligations which presidents have trafficked in since WWII makes a strong logical case for them to do so now. Congress's mad grasp to clarify their role in the midst of burgeoning presidential powers, the War Powers Resolution (a hastily and confusedly written piece of legislation, I know!), may be the law of the land, but every president since Nixon has dismissed it as unconstitutional, and there is little chance of it emerging as a legal cause to either tie the president's hands or--more likely--complicate the funding which President Obama will ask for when he goes forward with the bombing, whether Congress gives him a resolution "authorizing" (or, as Secretary of State Kerry insists, just supporting) the use of force or not.

In the end, this is a political stratagem on the part of the president. So why don't I think Congress should just play along and go on to other things? Because, silly as it may seem, I really do believe in legislative supremacy; I really don't want the United States to continue along the imperial course which George W. Bush put us upon; and I really do think military adventurism is one of the primary causes for the executive's endlessly expanding power. Unwinding all that will take far more than any single vote (especially since, once American equipment and manpower are committed, Congress will almost certainly find itself politically incapable of exercising any budgetary restraints of any further adventurism--"supporting the troops" is just too potent, and poisonous, a bloody flag to wave). But in this case, a "yes" vote will be more than meaningless...while a "no" vote might, just might, become a line in the sand which those who want to limit America's role in the world could build upon. As actually serving politicians in Washington DC, my dear senators and representative, it's unlikely that you're really interested in such limits. But with any luck, for whatever reason occurs to you, perhaps you'll vote in a way to provide those who are so interested with a start. That's my hope, anyway.

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