This is why people hate Washington politics.
Over the next several days a debate will rage in Washington over the president’s use of military force in Syria. But unlike most foreign policy debates, this one is not between the Republican hawks on the right and the Democrat doves on the left. Members of both parties have left their respective trenches to don the colors of the opposition. No, this time the debate is between two branches of government…the executive branch and the legislative branch…and the substance of the debate is nothing but pure politics.
Over the past two years the president has made several bold statements about the Syrian conflict. He has said that Assad must go. He has said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be crossing a red line that would result in serious consequences. He has said the United States would send small arms and munitions to the Syrian rebels.
As we write this, Assad is still in power, he has used chemical weapons with impunity, and the Syrian rebels have yet to receive one bullet from the United States. The president’s policy on Syria is a muddled mess…and he knows it.
So the president dispatches Secretary of State John Kerry to make the case for using military force against the Assad regime, placing emphasis on the president’s authority to do so without congressional approval. Kerry, ever the good soldier, takes up the president’s banner and makes the case brilliantly.
The president shows his appreciation for Kerry’s efforts by throwing him under the bus. The president abruptly announces that he will seek congressional approval before ordering any attacks against the Syrian regime.
If there is one thing that the president has made clear in his foreign policy it is that he believes he has the right under the constitution to order military strikes without congressional approval. Time and time again he has backed up that belief with action.
He ordered the raid that killed bin Laden without consulting congress. He ordered the military to conduct bombing raids in Libya without consulting congress. And he personally orders drone attacks against suspected terrorists in a whole host of countries where the US has yet to make any semblance of a declaration of war…without consulting congress.
So why the policy shift in Syria? The answer is pure politics.
The president has made the political calculation that congressional approval will strengthen his case to move against Syria. At risk is his presidency.
If congress approves his request he has the political cover to act without risk of political retribution should things go badly. But if congress denies his request then he is irreparably weakened both domestically and internationally. Syria, Iran, Russia and others, will see this as a clear sign that the United States is no longer the force it once was…that they can move forward with their agendas without risk of intervention by the world’s lone super power.
Domestically the president’s political enemies will be emboldened by this lack of fortitude. For after all…they will have looked him in the eye and he will have blinked. For all intents and purposes he will become a lame duck president before his second term has barely started.
The politics is equally risky for the legislative branch.
This Republican led congress has proven to be adept at leveling criticism yet impotent in terms of action. They have made it clear that they believe this president has exceeded his constitutional authority in terms of the use of force. Now they find themselves in the unenviable political position of having to put up or shut up. The president has lobbed the ball into their court. The question now is: “What do we do with it?”
If congress gives the president the authority to use military force in Syria then the outcome is as much on their hands as it is his. But if they refuse to give their authorization, the mantle of “obstructionist” weighs even heavier on their shoulders. And as the carnage in Syria continues to be displayed on the nightly news it is congress that will bear the brunt of the blame.
Keep in mind that all this political posturing is over the use of a limited military strike designed to “punish” the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. There are no expectations on either side of the aisle that this military action will alter the course of the civil war in Syria.
For it is not a plan to remove a ruthless dictator. It is not a plan to stop the carnage that has already taken over 100,000 lives. This is just politics for the sake of politics.
Both the executive and legislative branches of our government are playing politics with an international tragedy. Their maneuverings are strictly for the purpose of achieving a political advantage.
Be careful what you wish for.