WASHINGTON — Because Syria’s convulsion has become as serious as Barack Obama has been careless in speaking about it, he is suddenly and uncharacteristically insisting that Congress participate in governance. Regarding institutional derangements, he is the infection against which he pretends to be an immunization.
In the Illinois Legislature, he voted “present” 129 times to avoid difficulties; now he stoops from his executive grandeur to tutor Congress on accountability. In Washington, where he condescends as a swan slumming among starlings, he insists that, given the urgency of everything he desires, he “can’t wait” for Congress to vote on his programs or to confirm persons he nominates to implement them. The virtues of his policies and personnel are supposedly patent and sufficient to justify imposing both by executive decrees.
In foreign policy, too, he luxuriates in acting, as most modern presidents have improvidently done, without the tiresome persuasion required to earn congressional ratifications. Without even a precipitating event such as Syria’s poison gas attack, and without any plausible argument that an emergency precluded deliberation, he waged protracted war against Libya with bombers and cruise missiles but without Congress.
Now, concerning Syria, he lectures Congress, seeking an accomplice while talking about accountability. Perhaps he deserves Congress’ complicity — if he can convince it that he can achieve a success he can define. If success is a “shot across the bow” of Syria’s regime, he cannot fail: By avoiding the bow, such a shot merely warns of subsequent actions.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has advertised his skepticism about intervening in Syria. His very public intrusion in a policy debate may exceed what is proper for the uniformed military, but he seems to have played Obama as dexterously as Duke Ellington played a piano. Dempsey assured Obama that the military mission could be accomplished a month from now. (Because the bow will still be there to be shot across?) This enabled Obama to say that using the military to affirm an international norm (about poison gas), although urgent enough to involve Congress, is not so urgent that Congress’ recess required abbreviation.
Britain’s Parliament inadvertently revived the constitutional standing of the U.S. Congress when Prime Minister David Cameron’s incompetent management of the vote resulted in Parliament refusing to authorize an attack. His fumble was a function of Obama’s pressuring him for haste. If Parliament had authorized an attack — seven switched votes would have sufficed — Obama probably would already have attacked, without any thought about Congress’ prerogatives. The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman reports that in an Aug. 24 telephone conversation with Cameron, Obama “made it clear that he wanted a swift military response — before global outrage dissipated and Bashar al-Assad’s regime had the chance to prepare its defenses.”
Many Republicans are reluctant to begin yet another military intervention in a distant and savage civil war. Other Republicans, whose appetite for such interventions has not been satiated by recent feasts of failure, will brand reluctance as “isolationism.” Reluctant Republicans can invoke Dwight Eisenhower.
He, who in 1961 enriched America’s lexicon with the phrase “military-industrial complex,” sought the presidency in 1952 to prevent its capture by what he considered an isolationist, or at least insufficiently internationalist, Republican faction represented by “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. Yet after one look as president-elect at the front line in Korea, Eisenhower ended that war. To advisers urging intervention on France’s behalf in Vietnam, he said (this from his memoirs): “Employment of airstrikes alone to support French troops in the jungle would create a double jeopardy: it would comprise an act of war and would also entail the risk of having intervened and lost.” He was not an interventionist regarding the 1956 Hungarian revolution, and he not only refused to support the 1956 British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, he ruthlessly forced its termination. About his brief and tranquil intervention in Lebanon, he wrote: “I had been careful to use about U.S. forces the term ‘stationed in’ Lebanon.”
Obama’s sanctimony about his moral superiority to a Congress he considers insignificant has matched his hypocrisy regarding his diametrically opposed senatorial and presidential understandings of the proper modalities regarding uses of military force. Now he asks from the Congress he disdains an authorization he considers superfluous. By asking, however reluctantly, he begins the urgent task of lancing the boil of executive presumption.
And surely he understands the perils of being denied an authorization he has sought, then treating the denial as irrelevant.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.