Being Radically Traditional

No one knew how this was going to work out. With the Brits deciding they’d rather not join us in bombing Syria, and Congress saying don’t do it, or that bombing’s not enough, depending on who you ask, and with the American people more than a little wary of the whole idea, Obama came up with a new plan over the weekend. Everyone was full of advice – do it, don’t do it, think of this consequence or that, don’t be a jerk and make the decision all on your own, be a man and do it all on you own, be bold, be careful. Everyone had a plan, and Obama turned the tables on them. Maybe everyone should put up or shut up. If you think this is so easy, or that the right thing to do is so damned obvious, vote for what should be done. Talk is cheap. You say that Congress should make such decisions? Fine – decide. He told them he had decided to attack Syria, in a limited way, but he’d hold off until Congress voted on that, one way or the other.

Obama will go ahead with an attack even if Congress rejects it, or he might not, but he could. That’s beside the point. It’s time to get Congress on record. Simply whining and complaining won’t do now. Take a position, damn it. Stand FOR something for a change. Don’t bitch. Choose. That’s how our representative democracy is supposed to work. The president was never supposed to be a king. As discussed previously – at some length – this restores a little bit of democracy to our democracy. Maybe it weakens the presidency, showing Obama to be a coward – many on the right are saying that – or maybe the framers of our Constitution designed its division of authority between any one president and Congress for good reason. One man shouldn’t decide everything. The people should have a say when we commit an act of war, or commit to war. Our representatives in the House and Senate should have a say in such matters. The Constitution actually says so. Obama taught constitutional law. He knows this. To argue against this new plan to now ask for a vote from Congress, because that means the president is a wimp, is to argue against the whole structure of our government. Those in Congress who have a problem with what Obama has asked them to do will soon find themselves arguing that they are quite irrelevant, and always should be. Oops.

This was a pretty clever trap, but then it’s always easy to trap authoritarians. Once they say that the will of the people is all that really matters, all the talk of the will of God, or of the necessity for a manly president who does things his way, only, becomes absurd. The people are now fine with gay marriage, and immigration reform, and universal background checks for people buying guns, and with the current rules on abortion, and certainly fine with taxing the rich a bit more and what’s left of the middle class a bit less – and the people can’t be wrong, unless you play fast and loose with the whole concept of authority. Now the question is authorizing an attack on Syria. Our citizens and military personnel are not under attack and this is not a split-second emergency. The President is not considering a request from the UN Security Council, NATO, the Arab League or anyone else. Sending our missiles against Syria is an act of war. If it is to be done, Congress, not the president, should approve. Those are the rules. If you want to change them now then call a Constitutional Convention or something – argue we need a king if you’d like.

No one is going to argue that, but no one expected this, and at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum runs down the reactions, like the White House’s all-out effort to win votes, citing this:

The lobbying blitz stretched from Capitol Hill, where the administration held its first classified briefing on Syria open to all lawmakers, to Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry reached Arab diplomats by phone in an attempt to rally international support for a firm response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.

And Congress is skeptical:

Members of Congress from across the political spectrum reacted with deep skepticism Sunday to President Obama’s bid for approval of strikes against Syria, with lawmakers raising doubts about whether a vote would succeed.

And the Israelis are worried:

Many here viewed Obama’s last-minute equivocation as the latest evidence of a growing U.S. reluctance to engage aggressively in the Middle East, a worrisome prospect for a nation that relies heavily on its close American ties to intimidate enemies.

And Vladimir Putin is being a pain:

Russia dramatically escalated its denunciations of American threats to attack Syrian military targets on Saturday, with President Vladimir Putin saying it would have been “utter nonsense” for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons as the Obama administration alleges.

And Republicans are caught between their usual hawkishness and their need to make Obama look bad:

President Barack Obama got a chilly response from Republican lawmakers on his request for support for military action in Syria after alleged chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad… The list of criticisms from Republicans was wide-ranging: The president should act on his own; he doesn’t have a plan; the U.S. military is degraded; the U.S. is war-weary; Mr. Obama has been too tentative; he has leaked too much of his plans already.

And Presidential hopefuls have other concerns:

Some Republicans may oppose the president simply because they are opposed to the president. But that does not constitute a foreign or national security policy. The Republican Party now is divided among those in the neoconservative wing who led the call for invading Iraq and who continue to argue in favor of more robust action in Syria; those in the libertarian wing who want the United States generally to stay out any conflicts; and those in the middle who see a need for U.S. leadership but are tempered by public weariness with war.

And those Syrian rebels aren’t happy at all:

Opposition activists said they were “deeply disappointed” with the decision. Rebel fighters also have predicted that Assad loyalists would seek to use the delay to escalate attacks on rebel strongholds.

Of course the Saudis want America to remain the region’s policeman:

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal indirectly acknowledged Sunday that the Arab world remained reliant on the U.S. as the region’s policeman of last resort against transgressions by fellow Arab states, as well as the Arab world’s top tier of protection against Iran. “There is no capacity in the Arab world to respond to this kind of crisis,” Prince Saud said, speaking of Syria.

Yeah, but they’re not everyone over there:

However, some influential members of the league, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria, have expressed opposition to foreign military intervention.

Drum has some advice here:

Why, it’s almost as if the only thing anyone really cares about is their own narrow parochial interest. Enforcing a century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons may sound high-minded in the abstract, but down on the ground there’s virtually no one who (a) actually cares about that and (b) would view a U.S. strike through that lens. You’re for it because you’re a Democrat or a Sunni or an Israeli or a member of the rebel army. You’re against it if you’re a Republican or a Shiite or an Egyptian or Vladimir Putin. Hardly anyone truly cares about American credibility or international norms or foreign policy doctrines or any of the other usual talking points. They’ve just chosen sides – that’s all.

Drum offers a word to the wise:

Regardless of your own personal view on a Syrian strike, you should keep this in mind. Your motivations – either for or against a strike – might be entirely virtuous, but there’s very little virtue among the actors whose opinions actually matter. The lesson you think will be sent by either restraint or action is probably not the lesson the rest of the world will take from it.

That’s depressing, but we’ll send some sort of message anyway, now that Obama has a new ally:

The White House’s aggressive push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Obama’s most hawkish critics, Senator John McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military.

In an hour-long meeting at the White House, said Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, Mr. Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were agreed upon. Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the CIA, was beginning to sneak into Syria.

That might be useful, but with perhaps sixty percent of those Syrian rebels being stone-cold al-Qaeda jihadists, McCain is just posturing – as we should support all rebels against tyranny. The fact that they’re the very same bad guys trying to kill us everywhere else, and have no clue how to run a government if they succeed, didn’t cross McCain’s mind – or it did, but he has an image to uphold. He was the hot-shot irresponsible fighter pilot, often reprimanded, who got shot down over Vietnam early on and then spent the entire war in solitary in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He believes that makes him a hero, who knows things. The one may be true without the other, and one gets the sense Obama was shining him on anyway. A few fifty-man cells of CIA fighters won’t change the facts here, and McCain admitted that there was “no concrete agreement” with Obama on which rebels get our support, and when and how. McCain was, however, able to say that Obama agrees with him – in principle. It was enough to get McCain onboard. He’s easy, and now he’s all in:

In remarks to reporters outside the West Wing, he called the meeting “encouraging,” urged lawmakers to support Mr. Obama in his plan for military action in Syria and said a no vote in Congress would be “catastrophic” for the United States and its credibility in the world. Mr. McCain said he believed after his conversation with the president that any strikes would be “very serious” and not “cosmetic.”

No one else is going to be that easy:

A Labor Day conference call with five of Mr. Obama’s highest-ranking security advisers drew 127 House Democrats, nearly two-thirds their total number, after 83 lawmakers of both parties attended a classified briefing on Sunday. Pertinent committees are returning to Washington early from a Congressional recess for hearings this week, starting Tuesday with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hear from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The debate is shifting away from ‘Did he use chemical weapons?’ to ‘What should be done about it?’” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in an interview after the Monday conference call.

No one else is as heroically simpleminded as John McCain. Things are never as simple as they should be. This would have been a whole lot easier if Obama had just made the decision all on his own, but he didn’t. It’s time to think things through for a change – no more of that comfortable and fun sneering and sniping from the sidelines now, to impress primary voters next time around. It’s time to get to work. What is the best thing to do? They didn’t expect that question, but many in Congress are getting over their resentment and actually working on an answer.

No one knew how this was going to work out, and it just might work out, which leads the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson to applaud Obama for asking for Congress’ input before attacking Syria:

This may be the first sensible step that Obama has taken in the Syrian crisis, and may prove to be one of the better ones of his Presidency – even if he loses the vote, as could happen. Politically, he may have just saved his second term from being consumed by Benghazi-like recriminations and spared himself Congressional mendacity about what they all might have done.

That was the whole point, and the Atlantic’s James Fallows is also happy with this:

This is the kind of deliberation, and deliberateness – plus finding ways to get out of a (self-created) corner – that has characterized the best of his decisions. It is a very welcome change, and surprise, from what leaks had implied over the past two weeks.

At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison sees the possibility of some common sense here:

Presumably, Obama is gambling that he can cow Congress into granting authorization by having publicly committed the U.S. to military action. When presidents have gone to Congress to seek this kind of authorization, they have typically received it and usually by a large margin. I am cautiously hopeful that there are enough members in the House at least that know how deeply unpopular war with Syria is that this will not be the case this time, but I fear that few Democrats will be willing to vote against the White House and too many Republicans will be only too happy to vote yes. If members of Congress judge the proposed attack in terms of U.S. interests or international law, they should definitely reject it. If they judge it in terms of bogus “credibility” arguments or an obsession with wounding Iran, I am less sure that most of them will vote no.

At Business Insider, Josh Barro games it out a different way:

Democrats: In the current political environment, they have little reason to think voting against an attack will make them look “soft on terror,” which is what they were most afraid of during the Iraq authorization vote 10 years ago. But they have good reason to fear the Hillary example: voting yes could cost them a primary election if things go wrong.

Republicans: War hawks are a far weaker force in GOP politics than they were 10 years ago. You don’t have to be Ron Paul to defend a skeptical position on intervention anymore. And it’s not that hard to make a case to a Republican primary electorate for why you opposed one of Barack Obama’s initiatives.

Obama could lose this vote, because politicians do sense the mood of the country, and George W. Bush poisoned the well.

There’s more to it than that, as the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe thinks Obama learned another lesson:

Obama has clearly learned something from Cameron’s blunder: he’s not rushing this thing. Cameron was dealing with an incomplete Parliament, as some MPs just didn’t bother to come back for the vote. He didn’t spend the time laying out his case, lobbying and whipping the vote in to shape. Obama, by contrast, is not summoning Congress back early. He’s scheduled a second briefing with lawmakers, and there have been reports that he is already personally lobbying the people in his party, like Carl Levin, who have been skeptical of intervention in Syria.

That fine, but the Washington Post’s Max Fisher worries about the delay:

The U.S. Congress is not known for its speed with urgent issues – particularly ones that come during their vacation. It is also not an institution known for compromise or cooperation on issues that are, like this one, daunting, difficult and that have few political upsides. Whether or not you think that off-shore strikes are a good idea, this adds more delays and uncertainty after a week of both. It increases the likelihood, probably already significant, that the Assad regime will see the international community as unable or unwilling to hold him accountable. If strikes are likely to happen anyway, the uncertainty is not good for Syria. And if they don’t happen, Syria would have likely been better off if the U.S. had never signaled otherwise in the first place.

In Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf sees the real problem with any delay:

If the administration persuades Congress to support military action, it will be seen as a victory for the president, to be sure. But it may also have given the Assad regime another two or three weeks to redeploy assets and hunker down – so that the kind of limited attack currently envisioned has even more limited consequences.

Yes, but we should talk about it, and Bruce Riedel suggests we see the larger picture:

A war with Iran would be vastly more dangerous and costly than one with Syria, even if both are intended to be limited. Wars always have unintended consequences. If time permits, the people’s representatives should be part of the decision to take on the risks of action. President George H. W. Bush did that before the liberation of Kuwait. As a senior intelligence officer, I spent days explaining the CIA’s estimates of the risks to the Congress. The process sharpened our analysis.

There are no good options in Syria. Sliding into the conflict by baby steps and partial measures is the worst approach. Even worse would be to do so without a national debate and Congressional action.

So we’ll have a national debate and Congressional action, even if no one expected any such thing, or even wanted it, and even if it will be messy and often nasty. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be like that. Those who see a problem here need to see how radically traditional Obama’s surprise move really was. So let’s get to work.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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4 Responses to Being Radically Traditional

  1. Rick says:

    Two things. First of all:

    “Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the CIA, was beginning to sneak into Syria.”

    Whoops! So much for the CIA’s “covert” effort to train fighters, which we just announced are “sneaking” into Syria! Am I the only one who noticed the absurdity here? If Snowden had revealed this secret, they’d add it to his indictment!

    And second of all, as for Obama’s decision to allow Congress in on the decision, I wish I could remember who it was who characterized this the other day as a case of a dog chasing a car, and now that the dog actually caught the car, has to figure out what to do with it.

    But my reaction hasn’t changed since my instant reaction when I first heard of the decision: I don’t really like it.

    If he was going to consult Congress, he should have decided earlier to do that without having to make it a surprise change of course, especially one that drags this whole process out longer, giving so much comfort to Assad and so much discomfort to the rebels. He didn’t need Congressional approval by law, so if the decision is to strike, strike and get it over with.

    Although I must say, my first choice would be to not strike. I think if the point of all this is to put the spotlight on Assad (or whoever) for violating international norms against using chemical weapons, he should forget about what Russia and China will do and just go to the United Nations to make a strong case for isolating Assad in the world community for doing it.

    As I heard someone argue over the weekend, you can force Russia and China to go on record defending their position, but a military strike — especially one in which civilians die — is not really going to make the case any better than arguing your case to the world.

    In fact, taking the diplomatic route would strengthen America’s leadership image much more than taking the “American Exceptionalist” position, which is that we have a right to do things unilaterally that other countries would rightly be condemned by everyone, including us, for doing.

    Rick

    • Madeline says:

      First, I take exception to people referring to the President as Mr. Obama. He is the President and should be referred to as such, not Mr. It bothers me less if one just says Obama. My thoughts on his decision:

      Our President’s decision to wait and give the question to Congress: In my opinion, a Home Run with Bases Loaded!!!

      Not only does he move away from “going it alone,” it gives opportunity for more world attention and response to the atrocity. In the meantime, the Arab League has met and demands action, including asking the UN for an appropriate response, and suggesting that the entire conflict situation in Syria should be somehow set up for a peaceful settlement among the parties. US Congressional members must now take a stand, not just continue sniping at President Obama no matter what he does. There is now opportunity for discussion with the US public on the issues and possible consequences of whatever action is taken. And, perhaps this is a real opportunity to restore some balance of power and show the world how a democracy is supposed to function. I realize this is a considerable challenge for our dysfunctional Congress. Let’s hope they can come up to the challenge.

      • Rick says:

        I don’t disagree (or at least not significantly) with your opinion, other than to shutter to think what the world reaction will be, either way, if Congress votes the plan down and then (1) he does, or (2) does not go ahead with the mission. Also, I wonder whether this will really contribute to the conversation. Still, in the name of democracy, maybe it’s worth trying.

        But as for the “Mr. Obama”, as opposed to “President Obama”, it’s a New York Times style-book thing to call everybody, even presidents, “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, that goes way back for I-don’t-know-how-long, but which doesn’t really bother me. After all, even though the paper is often likened to a somewhat stuffy old lady, it does sometimes, in a way, admirably exemplify American informality, and could be a hell of a lot worse.

        In fact, I checked to see how The Times covered FDR back in the day, and found this sentence in their story of his death:

        “Mr. Truman immediately let it be known that Mr. Roosevelt’s Cabinet is remaining in office…”

        A double-whammy! Two presidents in one sentence!

        Rick

  2. BabaO says:

    What I have long observed, and most recently seen pointed out a couple of days ago by Richard Shapiro is the fact – clearly seen by those of my generation who paid attention in what was then called “Civics” class – is that since 1941 the US has been involved in one sort of combat or another almost constantly, and not once has the Congress been asked to, nor has it demanded its right and obligation to make the Constitutional decision that the country should declare war in order to wage war. I thought about when I was in Viet Nam, and I had always hoped that it would never happen again – particularly to my children – volunteers or not. What has evolved and become apparently acceptible is for whichever party’s bright-eyed boy who has won the the office of president to ignore the sparklingly clear constitutional requirement, and instead to obfuscate whatever bloody conflict they wish to start or intervene in by calling it something other than a war. Warfare is what war is about. If one commits acts of warfare, one is fighting a war. To argue anything differently, except in the most awful immediacy of self-defense is pure mendacity. But maybe we’re so used to that as a standard operation procedure of what used to be a clearly defined constitutional democratic republic that such is perfectly acceptible to most. And if that’s not the case here, why is there any discusion about whether the president should consult congress and get at least a figleaf before pounding the hell out of some more denizens of the sandlands?

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