Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Syria Stumbles Don’t Get Congress Off the Hook

President Obama’s hesitancy and confusion has united pretty much all Republicans in scathing criticism of his lack of leadership over Syria. I have joined in those criticisms. But we should not let Republicans and the rest of the political class—to say nothing of the nonpolitical mass—off the hook either for the loss of American credibility that will ensue from events of recent weeks.

Paul Mirengoff over at Power Line has a powerful and thought-provoking post on this subject. He writes “that the most serious and enduring loss to American credibility stems not from President Obama’s actions or decisions, but from the unwillingness of Congress and the American people to support him when he proposed taking military action against Assad.” Indeed, the failure of Congress to rally to President Obama’s side by supporting a military response to the use of chemical weapons effectively left the president little choice but to grasp the face-saving offer put forward by Russia that will supposedly remove Syria’s chemical weapons at the cost of keeping Bashar Assad in power indefinitely.

Now, it can be argued that part of the failure of Congress to support the president is due to his own vacillations—his strong rhetoric combined with vows that any strike would be “incredibly small” and would not be designed to topple Assad left national-security hawks scratching their heads. Undoubtedly some strong-on-defense types would have supported a more robust American response, but had so little confidence in what Obama was proposing that they indicated they would vote no.

But I don’t believe this is the whole picture. If President Obama had signaled a tough response designed to use air strikes in conjunction with arming the opposition to topple Assad, he would have picked up support from some hawks but would have lost even more support among the large number of doves of both parties.

It now appears clear that there was little chance of an authorization for the use of force passing whatever Obama said or did. Which is a good reason Obama should never have asked for congressional authorization to begin with—something he did, the Wall Street Journal reveals today, without bothering to consult with leaders of Congress in advance and over the objections of his own senior staff.

But I’m with Mirengoff: The president’s stumbles don’t excuse the mood of isolationism—or, if you prefer, non-interventionism—which is taking root in both parties and which applies far beyond Syria. The American people, through polls and their elected representatives, have made clear they are war-weary, eager to curtail overseas commitments, and sick of dealing with the world’s problems. Yet another manifestation of the same trend is the imposition of sequestration—across-the-board cuts in the defense budget amounting to more than $500 billion over the next ten years. A year ago there was widespread hope that such cuts would never be imposed or that, if they were, they would soon be repealed. Now there is a mood of resignation in Washington, and a growing realization that sequestration is never going to be repealed.

Even in the Republican Party, which since at least the days of Theodore Roosevelt has been the party of international engagement and military leadership (with a brief detour into isolationism that began under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover and ended with Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft for the 1952 presidential nomination), there are few voices speaking up for a tough response to the world’s predators. John McCain stands virtually alone in this regard and he is widely seen in the party as an outsider.

The most vocal Republican voice on foreign policy is Rand Paul, a born-again isolationist who, if he succeeds, will consign the GOP to perpetual irrelevance. We need to hear more from the Chris Christies, Marco Rubios, Jeb Bushes, and others who support a Reaganite policy of global leadership but are being drowned out by Tea Party isolationists. So, too, in the Democratic Party we need to hear more from the liberal internationalists such as the Clintons to explain why we can’t simply turn our backs on war crimes.

Just because we choose to ignore the world’s problems doesn’t mean they will go away. Just the opposite: Without American leadership, problems such as the Syrian chemical-weapons program or Iran’s nuclear-weapons program will simply become more dangerous. Ultimately we will be drawn into dealing with the fallout, like it or not, and a failure to engage early on all but guarantees we will have to face higher costs down the road. If most Americans don’t understand that, it’s up to their leaders to educate them—as an earlier generation of leaders educated Americans to support the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the containment policy. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence of that kind of leadership today in either party.

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