My assumption all along, one I'm still (uneasily) holding to, is that when the debate is over, Congress will give Obama the authority he's asking for to attack Syria, just as it has every other time a president has asked. (There have been a couple of occasions in which Congress voted against a military action, but in those cases the president hadn't actually requested the vote; they were congressional protests against something that had already begun.) But a congressional rebuke, particularly in the House, is starting to look like a real possibility. This is a Congress unlike any that came before it, and the unusual nature of this proposed action—offered mostly as a punishment for something that already happened, with barely a claim that it will do much if anything to stop future massacres so long as they're done with conventional weapons—may combine to set a new historical precedent.
It was pretty remarkable to see Republican members of Congress yesterday yelling at John Kerry about the rush to war like they were a bunch of San Francisco liberals. But for these guys, there's really no higher principle than opposition to Barack Obama and everything he wants to do. And if this is a "conscience" vote (i.e. one where the leadership is not demanding that they toe the party line), a lot of Democrats just don't find the administration's case persuasive.
And for some others, this isn't a difficult vote, it's a golden opportunity.
President Obama just might pull off his proposed Syria attack. And a limited strike to punish Assad, take out much of his Air Force, and deter future chemical attacks just might be the least bad of the available options, none of which are good. The strategy might also be astute domestic politics, since it exposes the opportunistic fault lines in the Republican Party and could cast the president as a strong leader for once.
One intriguing question is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and why he is so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics. More on that in a moment.
We're just beginning to embark on something we only do every few years: have a real, national debate on whether we should start another war. Okay, so this isn't a full-scale war, at least not from our end; to hear the administration tell it, the whole thing could be over in a day or two. But Congress will be officially coming back into session on Monday, and at that point they'll be talking about little else for a couple of weeks. It'll be dominating the news, unless a young singer horrifies the nation by dancing suggestively, requiring us all to drop what we're doing and lament the debased state of America's moral fiber.
So far anyway, it's pretty clear that most Americans don't think a military strike against Syria is a good idea. That in itself is unusual; you'd expect at the very least to see a closely divided public. The problem the administration confronts is that there seems to be no one unambiguously in favor of this action. Democrats otherwise inclined to support the President are the very people who don't like foreign military adventures and were particularly disgusted by what happened the last time the government decided there was an awful dictator in the Middle East who had to be dealt with. And the Republicans otherwise favorably inclined toward a jolly good bombing campaign every now and again are the very people who can hardly bear the thought of supporting Barack Obama on anything. Members of Congress are reporting that the calls, emails, and conversations they're having with constituents are running almost exclusively against a strike.
That, of course is an imperfect measure of public opinion, but the better measures are showing much the same thing.
Many members of Congress are either yahoos who couldn’t find Syria on a map or partisan hacks who make policy choices purely based on political expediency. And yet: the best thing about President Barack Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike against the government of President Bashar Assad is that it increases the chances that the eventual road taken by the United States in Syria will be a good one.
Don Rumsfeld, believe it or not, is back. And though I haven't read "Rumsfeld's Rules," (available in paperback soon!), I'm pretty sure he hasn't changed a bit. Which is something that I think it's fair to say is true of most people who worked at high levels for George W. Bush. As far as they're concerned, they were right all along, about everything. Rumsfeld thinks President Obama is going about this Syria thing all wrong, about which he could well be right, but how can anybody hear him offer opinions about that sort of thing and not remind themselves that he bore as much responsibility as anyone for what was probably the single greatest foreign-policy screwup in American history?
Anyhow, the real reason I mention Rummy is that Errol Morris has a new documentary about him coming out soon called The Unknown Known. Like Morris' The Fog of War, his film on Robert McNamara, it's basically a long interview with Rumsfeld. But unlike McNamara, Rumsfeld has no regrets. Watch this preview all the way to the end:
Somewhat at odds with its place in western political lore as the ultimate symbol of appeasement and betrayal, Munich is actually a really nice city. (Really, how could any city whose cultural life is significantly arranged around the appreciation of beer not be?) Visiting in 2011 I was taken on a group tour of the city that terminated at the Konigsplatz, the plaza that’s become the center of Munich’s museum and art gallery district. Our guide led us past a group of breakdancing teens to the Fuhrerbau, the former Nazi Party Headquarters which sits at the edge of the plaza. Now home to a music and theater academy, the Fuhrerbau is the building where the infamous Munich pact—the 1938 agreement recognizing Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, which convinced Adolph Hitler that European leaders were not willing to risk war to stop German expansionism—was signed. “And here,” our guide said, leading us inside, around the building’s grand staircase and into a musty storage closet, “is the table on which the pact was signed.”
With Congress highly unlikely to take the initiative, Barack Obama did something unexpected and good for American constitutionalism: he asked for congressional approval for military action against Syria. His recognition that warmaking is fundamentally a shared rather than a unilateral presidential power is most welcome. But this victory for a more rational policy process will ring hollow if Congress gives the Obama administration everything it's asking for.
The news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy. In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns.
Nixon and Kissinger meet with John Wayne, probably to talk about how Congress is a bunch of no-good varmints. (White House photo)
Congress is now debating—informally until they return to session on Monday, formally thereafter—whether we should take military action against the Syrian government. But the Obama administration has made clear its belief that it doesn't actually need congressional approval for the strikes it plans to undertake. Are they right? Herewith, a brief explainer on presidents, Congress, and war powers:
President Obama announcing his intention to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. (White House video)
So last night I was watching the NBC News, and a report on Syria came on, in which Andrea Mitchell spent five minutes talking about whether going to Congress for affirmation of his decision to attack the Syrian government makes Barack Obama "look weak." Mitchell is the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent," which is what you call someone who stays in nice hotels and gets talking points from top officials when she travels with the Secretary of State to foreign countries. The news is full of this kind of discussion, about whether Obama is weak, whether he "bungled" the decision-making process, how this might affect the 2014 elections, and pretty much anything except whether a strike on Syria is genuinely a good idea or not. Here's the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza talking up the "massive gamble" Obama is taking—not a gamble on what will happen in Syria, mind you, but a political gamble. Here's Chuck Todd and the rest of the NBC politics crew gushing that this is "a great political story." Don't even ask what's going on over at Politico.
Look, I get it. These folks are political reporters, so they report on politics. You don't go into a restaurant and ask the sommelier to make your entree and the pastry chef to pick you a wine. I'm not sure you'd even want Chris Cillizza trying to explain the actual substance of a potential military action in Syria. Heck, I too spend most of my time writing about politics, and there are legitimate political issues to discuss. But it does seem that Obama's request for a congressional authorization has almost been greeted in the Washington media with a sigh of relief: At last, we get to frame this issue in terms of the political stuff we feel comfortable with, and can stop worrying about the serious and deadly substance of it all. We can treat it just like we treat everything else, as a game with winners and losers and a point spread to be debated.
Matt Duss has an excellent piece for the Prospect explaining why military action against Syria is probably a terrible idea on policy grounds. In addition to the question of whether the policy is wise, however, it's worth considering whether a unilateral decision to attack Syria by the president would be legal.
It seems obvious at this point that 1) The Obama administration is going to drop some bombs on something or someone in Syria, even if no one is yet sure what or whom; and 2) This is something they'd really rather not do. Back when George W. Bush was president, he and his team were practically giddy with excitement over the Iraq War, and much was made of the fact that nearly all the top people whose loins were burning to blow stuff up and send other people's children to fight had themselves worked hard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But the truth is that whether we're talking about a Republican administration filled with eager armchair warriors or a Democrat administration filled with peaceniks, every American president eventually scrambles the jets and orders the bomb bays loaded. And when you step back to look at all our military adventures, every invasion and police action and no-fly zone and Operation Turgid Thrusting, you can't help wonder whether we'll ever see a presidency in which we don't project our military force over somebody else's borders. Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, once said to Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?", and the implicit answer seems to be, none at all.
So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a quick look at some of the places we've invaded, bombed, or otherwise used our military on just in the last half-century, to put this in context:
A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état.
As the Obama administration considers military action against Syria as retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it’s important to consider what such strikes could actually accomplish, and at what cost. As I understand them, the two main arguments for strikes are: 1) Having set a red line, the credibility of the United States now requires that the Bashar al-Assad regime be punished for crossing it; 2) Military action is necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons and to deter future use.
We haven't started a new war in years, but Bill Kristol knows what to do about that. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Back when George W. Bush was president, William Kristol—editor of the Weekly Standard, former Dan Quayle chief of staff, and general conservative man-about-town—co-founded something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, whose purpose was to beat the war drums until the American government and public saw the wisdom of an invasion. Kristol was eventually mocked not only for his status as a "chickenhawk"—like nearly all the war's most visible boosters, he was eager to send other people to fight and die, but had avoided military service during the Vietnam War—but for his confidently offered yet comically wrong predictions about Iraq, like "This is going to be a two-month war" or his immortal assertion that there was no reason to think there'd be any conflict between Sunnis and Shias since "Iraq's always been very secular." In the end, Kristol and his allies got what they wanted, and that Iraq thing turned out great for everybody involved.
And now, in case you were on the fence about whether the American government should take military action in Syria, Kristol has returned...