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By asking Congress to approve using military force against Syria’s Assad regime, Barack Obama threw Washington into turmoil.
If Congress declines his request, he will face a personal political debacle. The more important question, though, is what the effect would be on America’s prestige and credibility.
Congress and the public are deeply divided about intervening in Syria’s civil war (where neither side has much to recommend it) and its government’s use of chemical weapons. President Obama’s erratic, indecisive handling of Syria for more than two years, repeatedly bungling opportunities to gather congressional support, created his current quandary.
He seemed ready to strike, based on his manifest constitutional authority, and face the consequences later. He then reversed field, confounding even his closest advisers. Speculation about Bashar Assad surrendering his chemical weapons adds to this confusion, as Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday showed.
Advocates of Congress authorizing military force against Assad worry a no vote would damage U.S. credibility internationally and empower rogue states and terrorist groups seeking weapons of mass destruction. In the Syria context, these arguments are fundamentally unsound and unpersuasive.
First, Barack Obama, President though he may be, is not the United States of America. Virtually all Americans see and understand this distinction. Presidents come and go, succeed or fail, are admired or despised. Obviously, their performance impacts the nation, but it is often more ephemeral than lasting. Jimmy Carter departed, Ronald Reagan arrived, and it was morning in America.
It would be a monumental mistake to think foreign governments are blind on this point. After almost five years of watching Obama perform on the world stage, does any foreign leader still have stars in his eyes? Do they seriously believe that Obama’s consistently inept performance as “leader of the free world” reflects the true America?
Second, the argument that members of Congress must show deference to the President’s opinion here proves too much. It was Obama who convoked Congress to debate and declare its views. By permitting, indeed insisting, that Congress act — which he didn’t have to do, and shouldn’t have done in the manner he chose — Obama asked Congress to exercise its constitutional authority.
Unlike in a parliamentary system, where a government can fall through a “no confidence” vote, our constitutional separation of powers affords Congress and the President independent legitimacy. To say that senators and representatives must reflexively follow presidential decisions with which they disagree is inconsistent with their Article I responsibilities.
Take the treaty power, the exercise of which can carry enormous implications. In recent years, the Senate, in the exercise of its constitutional authority, has rejected or blocked mistakes including the Kyoto Protocol and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In each case, supporters argued that, by signing the agreements, the President put U.S. prestige on the line, that our allies counted on us to ratify, and that failing to do so would damage our global credibility and commitment.
Was the Senate supposed to roll over and acquiesce in bad agreements simply because rejecting them would supposedly damage our prestige? Of course not.
Similar logic applies here. To argue House and Senate members opposing the use of force must vote against their consciences because a President mistakenly, indeed irresponsibly, made a rash statement, found himself embarrassed politically and sought to shift the blame to others, is simply not compelling.
Edmund Burke wrote that a representative owes his constituents “not his industry only, but his judgment,” and that “he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” The same applies to Presidents.
Congress is not an arm of the executive, and its members were not rushing to decide on Syria. Having put the issue before them, Obama can hardly now insist that Congress act like his poodle.
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