A Blank Check for War
Obama’s Syrian war resolution paves the way for a wider conflict
Why did the President do an about face and suddenly decide to let Congress vote on intervening in Syria?
It was the polls that did it: only nine percent of the American people support a bombing campaign. The number goes up somewhat if it is proved the Syrian government is responsible for the poison gas attack at Ghouta, and yet still a majority opposes US intervention even in that case.
The Washington know-it-alls invariably disdain the public’s ability to judge the lofty geopolitical and moral concerns of the political class, and they are uniformly horrified by the President’s concession to the hoi polloi – but in the end all politics is local. What determines US foreign policy has little to do with events overseas, and everything to do with the reaction to those events here in the good ol’ US of A. In the face of massive public opposition to any US meddling in the Syrian snake pit, the White House wants the Republicans to at least partially own this, lest the political fallout for the Democrats is too much bear alone.
Americans are in an "isolationist" (i.e. commonsensical) mood. After being lied into war in Iraq, and faced with the prospect of what can only be characterized as a defeat in Afghanistan, a recent Pew poll determined that they overwhelmingly favor a foreign policy of "minding our own business" – as opposed to the political elites, who just as lopsidedly favor a policy of global policing.
This elite-populist divide has been ongoing for some time, but it has never been sharper than right now: an economic downturn coupled with the anti-climactic end of the Iraq war, has the public utterly opposed to another Middle East crusade.
Washington’s answer to this is to turn up the volume of the war propaganda machine: and the legacy media, ever government’s faithful servant, has obliged with endless streams of crying Syrian refugees and "discussions" of the issue amongst pro-war talking heads. The only anti-interventionist voice allowed on air to date has been Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), the libertarian Republican whose presidential aspirations are the stuff of Karl Rove’s worst nightmares. Faced with David Gregory’s parroting of the State Department line on "Meet the Press," Sen. Paul skewered John Kerry’s eagerness to pull the trigger:
"What I would ask John Kerry is – you know, he’s famous for saying, ‘How can you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?’ I would ask John Kerry, how can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake?"
The lumbering goonish Kerry, with his over-tanned face wrinkled by perpetual perplexity, is a singularly unappealing spokesman for the War Party. This is a role properly belonging to the President, but for some reason Obama is abstaining, leaving Kerry and the media’s laptop bombardiers with the burden of convincing a solidly antiwar public. Perhaps this President doesn’t want to go down in history as the first African-American George W. Bush.
Commentators are puzzled by the curious sequence of recent events: Kerry goes on television and gives every expectation of an imminent American strike on Syria – with the President coming out two days later averring he hasn’t yet made a decision. This sends Kerry scurrying out into the klieg lights once again, with an even more forceful statement – and the media, citing various administration leakers, reports it’s not a question of if but only of when. By the end of Labor Day weekend for sure!
The real shocker came when the President –after a 45-minute Rose Garden stroll with his chief of chief – came back at the Kerryites with the startling announcement that, yes, he had decided to strike – and to seek a vote in Congress.
This game of public relations ping-pong should make us all sit up and wonder who is in charge in Washington. The spectacle of dueling expectations indicates a real struggle within this administration, with powerful elements on the left as well as the right demanding we rush to war.
Although we don’t have any definitive account of the internal wrangling preceding the President’s decision, what we might call the Power faction – on account of the new UN ambassador’s championing of the "responsibility to
meddle protect" doctrine – wanted the President to forget Congress and usher in autumn with some good old shock-and-awe. According to these folks, it’s a "humanitarian" intervention and for that we don’t need anyone’s permission: this is the common ideological thread linking the "progressive" national security Democrats with the neocons in the GOP.
On the other hand, one imagines it was the political people who caviled at the mere thought of another intervention just as plans for the Clinton Restoration are getting underway. That poll showing nine percent support US involvement in Syria must have had them frantic. As for the Pentagon, they’ve been against it from the beginning, with joint chiefs head honcho Gen. Jack Dempsey going public in his opposition to military intervention well before the Ghouta incident.
This President, who has successfully resisted constant calls for intervention for over a year, finds himself besieged by a political class intent on war – and a chorus of war cries from our Middle Eastern and European allies, who are chafing at the bit to divide up the Syrian spoils. It’s almost as if he knows what he’s doing is quite wrong – and more, that the case for linking the Assad regime to what happened in Ghouta is far less airtight than his Secretary of State is claiming. That case is built on alleged signals intelligence picked up by the Israelis – a source of much of the bogus "evidence" for Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMD. Whatever the level of the President’s personal confidence in the intelligence presented so far, what’s undeniable is that Obama is asking the leaders of both parties to own this, to take responsibility come what may – because he knows what’s coming.
Obama has given himself an out – and, in his imperial magnanimity, he’s given us an out, too. By putting this up for a vote in Congress, he’s giving us the opportunity to do what the American public haven’t had the chance to do since the long-forgotten days of Harry Truman – and that is to weigh in on the vital question of war and peace. It was the pygmy from Peoria who set the horrible precedent of taking military action without congressional approval when he sent US GIs into the Korean meat-grinder, a misbegotten war that ended in stalemate and continues to haunt us to this day. Ever since then, Presidents have ignored the clear constitutional mandate given only to Congress and ordered troops into battle willy-nilly. A President backed into a corner has returned this right to Congress – a post-Truman precedent we must fight to preserve.
Right now, however, it is absolutely imperative that you call your congressional representatives and register your opposition to this ill-considered and dangerous adventure. Because even if you think the Assad regime is responsible for the poison gas attack, and even if you believe he deserves some sort of punishment to be delivered by us, the proposed authorization for the use of military force is very broad, allowing for a wide range of actions far beyond the "limited" strike promised by the President:
"a) Authorization. – The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria in order to –
"(1) prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons; or
"(2) protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons."
This authorization has neither geographical nor any practical limit: it could send US troops into Lebanon in search of sarin gas allegedly transferred to Hezbollah. It empowers the President to act anywhere in the world against any state or non-state actor provided some tenuous link to Syrian WMD can be established. It could easily be invoked as justification for moving against Iran – after all, the Iranians are aiding and abetting the Assad regime, and are therefore enabling the use of such weapons. Furthermore, the resolution clearly does not rule out US boots on the ground.
In short, the proposed authorization is a blank check, one that could and will be used to justify a gradual escalation of the conflict into an all-out military campaign bent on regime change. This is already the announced goal of the US government: Hillary Clinton, during her tenure at the State Department, declared "Assad must go," and now Washington is making good on its implied threat. Kerry and Clinton have long argued for arming the Syrian rebels, and now phase two of their regime change operation is kicking in.
The vaguely-worded text of this war resolution should be enough to scare off even those members of congress who might be inclined to vote for a more limited authorization. Sen. Paul gives it a fifty-fifty chance in the House of Representatives, but given the wording I’d say more like forty-sixty. This is one battle the peace camp can win – but only if you act.
I know many of my readers are skeptical every time I ask them to call their congressional representatives. They may have a point, but I would argue that this time it’s imperative, both morally and politically. Contrary to popular belief, it does have an effect – especially in this particular instance. These people are politicians: they not only want to win reelection, they want to be liked. The prospect of another war is deeply unpopular, and they know it. By hammering this point home, a flurry of calls is bound to register in their minds as a sign to run for cover. They’re already wondering: if this turns out badly, and I’m on the record supporting it, do I really want to go there? Your calls will increase their doubts.
Congress, at the behest of the Israel lobby, passed a series of anti-Syrian resolutions nearly unanimously, and nobody noticed: now the President is handing them the control panel and giving them the option to press the red button. It’s a masterful bit of political jiu-jitsu – and we who want to stop the rush to war must take full advantage of it.
It’s Labor Day weekend as this is being written, and congressional offices will be open and taking calls on Tuesday. That’s the time to call. Remember to be brief, and be polite.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.
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- ‘We Can’t Have Perpetual War': The Realism of Rand Paul – October 26th, 2014
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- Leslie Gelb Is Right – October 21st, 2014
- Is Mexico a Failed State? – October 19th, 2014