Will Our Polarization Cripple Us?

A President's Authority at Risk

It was only a matter of time before our polarized politics threatened to destroy a president’s authority and call into question our country’s ability to act in the world. Will Congress let that happen?

To raise this is not to denigrate those, left and right, who deeply believe that the United States should temper its international military role. Nor is it to claim that President Obama’s proposed strikes on Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons constitute some sort of “slam dunk” policy that should win automatic assent. But a bitter past hangs over this debate and could overwhelm a discussion of what’s actually at stake.

The wretched experience of Iraq is leading many Democrats to see Obama’s intervention in Syria as little different from what came before. Never mind that the evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people is far clearer than the evidence was about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or that Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up to now. It’s a paradox: While hawks criticize Obama for not being willing to act boldly enough against Assad, doves criticize him for being too willing to risk a wider war. Members of Obama’s party have to understand the risks of forcing him to walk away from a red line that he drew for good reason.

At the same time, Democrats will never forget how their patriotism and fortitude were questioned when they challenged President Bush on Iraq and other post-9/11 policies. Yes, Bush did sign a fundraising letter before the 2006 midterm election that spoke of Democrats “who will wave the white flag of surrender in the global war on terror and deny the tools needed to achieve victory.” At a campaign event that year, he said of Democrats: “It sounds like they think the best way to protect the American people is to wait until we’re attacked again.”

I bring this up only to remind Republicans opposing Obama on Syria -- and I’m not talking about the consistent anti-interventionist libertarians -- that some in their party are making arguments now that they condemned Democrats for making not very long ago. Can we ever break this cycle of recrimination?

Obama bears responsibility here, too. Precisely because he had been so unwilling to intervene in Syria, he has handed opponents of his policy some of the very arguments they are using against him. Until Obama decided that the chemical attacks required a strong response, he was wary of getting involved because the United States has reason to fear victory by either side in Syria. His old view may have been reasonable, but it can easily be invoked to undercut his current one.

The question now is whether Congress really wants to incapacitate the president for three long years. My hunch is that it won’t. This is why Republicans such as John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and John McCain and Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, Chris Van Hollen, and Gerry Connolly all find themselves battling to give Obama authority to act. The inconsistency of some Republicans shouldn’t blind us to the fact that others in the GOP are taking courageous risks to avoid paralyzing the president.

They will not prevail, however, unless Obama makes an unabashedly moral case on Tuesday explaining why things are different than they were a few months ago while laying out a practical strategy beyond the strikes. He must do something very difficult: to show that his approach could succeed, over time, in replacing Assad with a new government without enmeshing the United States in a land conflict involving troops on the ground.

The administration’s view is that only a negotiated settlement will produce anything like a decent and stable outcome in Syria -- and that only forceful American action now will put the United States in a position to get the parties to the table. It’s not tidy or an easy sell, but it’s a plausible path consistent with what the U.S. can and can’t do.

If Obama wins this fight, as he must, he should then set about restoring some consensus about America’s world role. He has to show how a priority on “nation-building at home” can be squared with our international responsibilities. The seriousness of this crisis should also push Republicans away from reflexive anti-Obamaism, Rush Limbaugh-style talk show madness, extreme anti-government rhetoric, and threats to shut Washington down.

If we want to avoid becoming a second-class nation, we have to stop behaving like one.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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Dionne is right about the mess that we're in. Nonetheless, I do not see that militarily attacking Syria without widespread international support is morally or politically justified. We can't rightly seek to solve the problems we have brought on ourselves by waging war on another people. Obama needs help in figuring out a way to increase non-military pressure on Assad's government. He himself ought to show his willingness to search for alternatives to military attacks.

I do not think a no vote on the proposed authorization bill we now have (as voted on by the Senate committee) would necessarily "paralyze the President," as Dionne contends. On the contrary, such a vote should trigger and national reasessment and debate on the ever increasing powers being usurped by the Chief Executive/Commander and Chief, in all areas, but especially in the use of  military force, and, also, we can hope, a reasessement and clarification of the use of force at any time by the US in our foreign policy. This should clarify when, and if, the President can act on his own in using military force for any reason other than a direct attack, or imminent direct attack, on the US or an ally by treaty. For the last 30+ years, Presidents seem to have taken upon themselves more and more unilateral powers, although sometimes "granted" by inaction or complicity of the Congress, which seem way beyond what the Constitution allows, or, what the American public wishes. Such a re-evaluation may actually strenghten the President's hand by clearly defining his prerogatives in this area and the limits.

One short point on a "no" vote's ability to "incapacitate" the president. That is totally hypothetical; we have never seen such a thing in living memory. The closest we came was the Senate slapping down Woodrow Wilson's push to join the League of Nations. Wilson entered his final illness before the Senate vote, so we don't really know what effect that would have had. When presidents have launched war offensives, they have always won. So we don't know what will happen if Congress says no this time.

It's surprising to see a guy as intelligent as E.J. Dionne nattering on about "polarization" like so many other clueless commentators. What he calls "polarization" has really been the pervasive unwillingness of the Republicans to compromise with the Democrats. The Republicans' ultimate motives for opposing the bombing of Syria may be to "cripple" Obama, but at least they have moved away from their traditional warmongering lunacy. They are in fact joining with Democrats of conscience who understand the folly of intervention in Syria. This is, on the surface at least, a dramatic compromise. Unfortunately, some Democrats who have traditionally been anti-war are now also compromising with—Obama.

Where in all this bloviating is the concern for the 'local Christians' who have been there since New Testament times?  The discussion is turned into comments on the various political and 'realpolitik' manoeuvers in assorted Western capitols, and local politics in those Western countries (and now Russia) and dealing with various Muslim sects.  I find that a very mistaken emphasis -- especially from those concerned with Christian mercy and justice. [At least the Russians take their official Orthodoxy seriously enough to bring in Christian concerns.]  Anyone who looks more than superficially can see that in North Africa, Egypt, Syria -- and in general within the 'Arab Spring' the centuries long more or less stable status of the minority Christian communities is put aside and/or ignored.  What a tragedy!  

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).