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The Hill to the Rescue on Syria?

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Posted on Sep 9, 2013
Rob Crawley (CC BY 2.0)

By Andrew J. Bacevich, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking.  On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines.  Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.  

In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated U.S. attack against Syria.  Obama hadn’t, he assured us,  changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the U.S. would “go it alone”  in punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its bad behavior.  Now,  however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.

Obama thereby brought to a screeching halt a process extending back over six decades in which successive inhabitants of the Oval Office had arrogated to themselves (or had thrust upon them) ever wider prerogatives in deciding when and against whom the United States should wage war.  Here was one point on which every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush had agreed: on matters related to national security,  the authority of the commander-in-chief has no fixed limits.  When it comes to keeping the country safe and securing its vital interests,  presidents can do pretty much whatever they see fit.

Here, by no means incidentally, lies the ultimate source of the stature and prestige that defines the imperial presidency and thereby shapes (or distorts) the American political system.  Sure, the quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are classy, but what really endowed the postwar war presidency with its singular aura were the missiles, bombers, and carrier battle groups that responded to the commands of one man alone.  What’s the bully pulpit in comparison to having the 82nd Airborne and SEAL Team Six at your beck and call?

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Now, in effect, Obama was saying to Congress: I’m keen to launch a war of choice.  But first I want you guys to okay it.  In politics, where voluntarily forfeiting power is an unnatural act, Obama’s invitation qualifies as beyond unusual.  Whatever the calculations behind his move, its effect rates somewhere between unprecedented and positively bizarre—the heir to imperial prerogatives acting, well, decidedly unimperial.

Obama is a constitutional lawyer, of course, and it’s pleasant to imagine that he acted out of due regard for what Article 1, Section 8, of that document plainly states, namely that “the Congress shall have power…  to declare war.”  Take his explanation at face value and the president’s decision ought to earn plaudits from strict constructionists across the land.  The Federalist Society should offer Obama an honorary lifetime membership.

Of course, seasoned political observers, understandably steeped in cynicism, dismissed the president’s professed rationale out of hand and immediately began speculating about his actual motivation.  The most popular explanation was this: having painted himself into a corner, Obama was trying to lure members of the legislative branch into joining him there.  Rather than a belated conversion experience, the president’s literal reading of the Constitution actually amounted to a sneaky political ruse.

After all, the president had gotten himself into a pickle by declaring back in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad would cross a supposedly game-changing “red line.”  When the Syrians (apparently) called his bluff, Obama found himself facing uniformly unattractive military options that ranged from the patently risky—joining forces with the militants intent on toppling Assad—to the patently pointless—firing a “shot across the bow” of the Syrian ship of state.

Meanwhile, the broader American public, awakening from its summertime snooze, was demonstrating remarkably little enthusiasm for yet another armed intervention in the Middle East.  Making matters worse still, U.S. military leaders and many members of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were expressing serious reservations or actual opposition. Press reports even cited leaks by unnamed officials who characterized the intelligence linking Assad to the chemical attacks as no “slam dunk,” a painful reminder of how bogus information had paved the way for the disastrous and unnecessary Iraq War.  For the White House, even a hint that Obama in 2013 might be replaying the Bush scenario of 2003 was anathema.

The president also discovered that recruiting allies to join him in this venture was proving a hard sell.  It wasn’t just the Arab League’s refusal to give an administration strike against Syria its seal of approval, although that was bad enough.  Jordan’s King Abdullah, America’s “closest ally in the Arab world,” publicly announced that he favored talking to Syria rather than bombing it.  As for Iraq, that previous beneficiary of American liberation, its government was refusing even to allow U.S. forces access to its airspace.  Ingrates!


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