President Obama's Moment: Yes, He Understands The Stakes

Paul Evans

Ironically, the US Congress may soon wish the President had made the decision on his own.

This past week President Barack Obama surprised the world with his decision to ask the US Congress for a resolution authorizing force against Syria.

The President made this decision after making another: that he was prepared to stand – alone if necessary – and use our military to deter, degrade, and destroy critical assets in Assad’s war machine. Obama seeks to punish Syria for its illegal, immoral use of chemical weapons against civilian non-combatants.

Under ordinary circumstances this decision would be unexpected; under existing realities it is historic.

The 113th Congress may be judged by history as the least effective legislative body since the early 1920s. Few matters of legislative business have thus far navigated the labyrinth. To date, the US has yet to raise the debt limit, repeal sequestration constraints, or pass anything that could be called a “comprehensive budget.”

We have a Republican US House of Representatives that is effectively divided into at least three camps: Establishment Republicans, Tea-Party/Republicans, and Democrats.

We have a Democratic US Senate that is effectively impotent because of centuries-old procedural rules that have been taken hostage by the Republican Leader in order to facilitate perpetual gridlock.

And we have a nation that cannot understand the obstinacy of our elected leaders – despite our own responsibilities in continuing to send contradictory signals. We reward those that do things that make us happy despite the consequences for our nation, states, and communities. In simplest terms we deserve the bipolar governance drama we get. And as long as we continue to elect candidates that play to our near-sightedness we will continue to slog in-place and accomplish little.

Sadly, the melodrama that is modern politics in the US is now the scene of an impromptu dark comedy with tragic consequences. If the US fails to act then we will have surrendered whatever moral grounds we might have had regarding the use of weapons of mass destruction (something that US Presidents and US Congresses have been united against since the War to End All Wars). Despite our failure to ratify the League of Nations, the US did ratify (several times in fact) a treaty that outlawed the use of chemical weapons (Syria did too).

As a person that believes Congress should affirm or deny foreign policies advanced by a President I am proud of Barack Obama for making a hard, tough decision. However, as a student of US Politics I am weary of placing such a responsibility into the hands of this US Congress – especially the US Senate.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, the US Senate was where the “grown-ups” could be found – and depended upon. Whereas the US House was the training grounds, the US Senate was the chamber of rational, reasoned debate: until the influence of unchecked money changed even this august body.

The modern US Senate is a circus: complete with its own clowns. Senators Cruz, Lee, Paul, and Rubio are wildcards that have repeatedly put their own interests ahead of our nation; Senators Ayotte, Graham, McCain, and even McConnell are worried about the growing influence of the Tea-Party and likely to be wherever they can play both sides against the middle with the rest of the Republican Caucus seeking ways to look tough without making themselves accountable.

As for the Democratic Senators, it’s a 50/50 chance for most given an inherent distrust of military options (especially when explained by the President as a half-measure) and a legitimate frustration about the talent, time, and treasure spent on overseas activities when so much remains left undone closer to home. Most Democratic Senators will vote with the President but there will likely be a few surprises in the mix.

As for the US House of Representatives, I am uncertain what Speaker Boehner would require of an affirmative vote. If his caucus puts this resolution into a category of any other request of the President, it is likely that amendments running the spectrum from Keystone to Obamacare to Welfare Reform could be attached thereby making the authorization a “poisoned pill.” For the true-believers among the caucus the unfortunate truth is that the tragic realities of civilian deaths in a distant land may not matter as much as the fantasy of squaring the deficit and/or budget.

Among the Democrats in the US House, there will likely be a majority supporting the President with a loud, vocal minority dissenting. For many that represent the poor that have been fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the resolution will be an opportunity to protest the consequences of perpetual war. However, on this vote, Boehner will be the decision-maker not the Democrats.

In the end, the President will receive authorization or not. Given the stakes the wording of the resolution will be tailored to the exigencies of the moment. The US Congress will likely consider language that provides authority for action – making passage an expressed statement of support for military action as the President deems necessary.

It would be unusual if there was a contradictory resolution explicitly denying the President the authority to act, or making such actions an impeachable offense. Absent direct language the President may still act as long as there is not an explicit prohibition. In this circumstance his actions would inevitably end up in the courts, but probably not in Congress.

The topic at hand: the undeniable use of chemical weapons (on multiple occasions) is something that nobody will want to be held responsible for aiding or abetting. Because of that I suspect even the zealots will avoid prohibitive language - these types of issues can transform an electorate and the GOP leadership knows it well.

But they could. Senator Cruz especially sees nothing but personal benefit from putting President Obama into forced dilemma.

My hunch is that there are enough President-wanna-be’s in the US Congress that the language for an up or down vote will not implicitly or explicitly prohibit President Obama from taking actions deemed necessary for the vital interests of the US.

A "loss" on this resolution would be a political loss on an international scale for President Obama but not a legal challenge to his authority as Commander-in-Chief (at least for periods not longer than 60-90 days) for a brief campaign targeting Assad’s WMD command and control, launchers, and support systems.

Whatever the US Congress decides upon return from their “August Recess” will be historic. If they support the President it gives an added degree of legitimacy and provides a united front for a campaign against a tyrant that killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

If the US Congress decides not to support the President, the US Congress will shoulder the weight of history for weakening the President’s available tools for stopping WMD genocide in the crib.

Ironically, the US Congress may soon wish the President had made the decision on his own. I suspect President Obama understands this all too well.

For good or ill, President Obama is a cautious man that takes his time coming to a decision. However, once he is comfortable with a decision he sticks with it. On Syria we know his decision; I suspect that whatever the US Congress chooses to do – Assad will soon reap the whirlwind he has sown.

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