I live in the Washington, D.C. area, and at this moment even the beginning of the NFL season, usually the one thing everyone here (except me) usually cares about, is being over-shadowed by the drama of the looming Congressional vote on Syria. What was assumed—why, I cannot imagine–to be a likely rubber stamp with only an insufficient number of Republicans providing opposition because, as we all have been told repeatedly, they will oppose the President on anything, has materialized as strong bi-partisan opposition. The Washington Post estimated last night that the votes in the House are currently running 3-1 against the symbolic-and-deadly-but-promised-to-be-non-committal missile strikes on pre-announced targets. This is the most encouraging development in the government since President Obama was elected, I am tempted to say. It shows that this is not a nation of lemmings, and that the separation of powers has its virtues after all. Nonetheless, interesting ethical arguments are arising in favor of votes both no and yes.
The no arguments are varied, and reach the same conclusion from different positions, some more ethical than others. The pacifist Left and the isolationist Right, both irresponsible and dedicated to ideology over reality, are on the same path here, and would be on that same path even if the President’s argument for missile strikes was strong. Others, including me, but also those who supported more extensive military action in the Bush administration, fault the plan because of its dubious results, its contradictory logic, and the feckless and troubling way the President brought us to where we are.
I just heard an interview with a Republican House member who announced that he reversed his initial support for the missile strike after hearing Obama’s remarks in Sweden. After hearing Obama appear to deny that he drew the red line—a rhetorical point that was too cute by half and clumsily stated—this Congressman decided that he couldn’t believe anything Obama said or promised regarding Syria, including his assurances that nothing would lead to “boots on the ground.” (I would argue that his assurances that nothing would lead to boots on the ground is, if not dishonest, frighteningly irresponsible.)
The yes arguments are more perplexing. Naturally, there are those who, against all logic, simply adopt the contradictory and militarily nonsensical arguments John Kerry was asked to present to the Senate (apparently because President Obama knows that he appointed an inarticulate—but loyal!!!—dim-bulb, Chuck Hagel, as Secretary of Defense—but that is another, though related, issue). Liberal columnist Eugene Robinson, who has won an Affirmative Action Pulitzer Prize and who has proven that he will cheer whatever his fellow-African American in the White House does, even if he makes a decree like the South American rebel-leader-turned-dictator in Woody Allen’s “Bananas”...
“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish…In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!”
made this “argument”…
“The issue can’t be who wins that country’s civil war. It has to be whether the regime of Bashar al-Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons — and, if the answer is yes, whether there is any effective means of punishment other than a U.S. military strike…Let me clarify: I believe that a U.S. strike of the kind being discussed, involving cruise missiles and perhaps other air-power assets, can make it more likely that Assad loses. But I also believe that — absent a major commitment of American forces, which is out of the question — we cannot determine who wins.”
Gee, thanks for clarifying, Eugene!
Other, more coherent voices argue for endorsing Obama’s plan do sent a few missiles—not any that might hit Assad or his weapons, mind you– because they argue, even if the plan is weak, misguided, dangerous or certifiably bats, the President and, by extension, the United States will be dangerously weakened if a call to arms is rejected. This is essentially the argument of rational conservative James Taranto. Here is former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, this morning:
“…During the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has generally waged a war of words and then used those words casually and clumsily. President Obama declared that Assad “must go” when his departure seemed inevitable — without a strategy, or even the intention, to achieve this goal when it became difficult. He drew a chemical-weapons “red line” that became a well-trodden thoroughfare. The Obama administration revealed details of an imminent military operation, which was promptly repudiated by the parliament of our closest ally, then abruptly postponed. The administration seemed to indicate that United Nations support for a military strike was needed — before declaring it unnecessary. It seemed to indicate that a congressional endorsement was superfluous — just before staking everything on securing it. Obama is inviting members of Congress to share responsibility for a Syrian policy that has achieved little to justify their confidence. In fact, he has undermined political support for the legislative outcome he seeks. For more than five years, Obama has argued that America is overcommitted in the Middle East and should refocus on domestic priorities. Now he asks other politicians to incur risks by endorsing an approach he has clearly resisted at every stage…”
Wait…this is how Gerson argues that Congress should vote yes? Indeed it is…
“Legislators are not arguing between preferred policy options, as they would on issues such as health care or welfare. They are deciding if they will send the chief executive into the world with his hands tied behind his back. This would be more than the repudiation of the current president; it would be the dangerous weakening of the presidency….even if this military action were wrong or pointless, it would have to be sufficiently dangerous to justify the gelding of the executive branch on a global stage. A limited military strike may be symbolic. But for Congress to block that strike would be more than symbolic. It would undermine a tangible element of American influence: the perception that the commander in chief is fully in command.”
This is a good time to stop and offer today’s Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, based on the reasoning of Gerson and others:
Are members of Congress ethically obligated, by loyalty and responsibility for the image and credibility of the U.S. abroad and to avoid weakening the institution of the presidency, to support the missile strikes on Syria, even if they and their constituents believe that to do so is wrong and misguided?
And here’s a poll:
This is my answer, but I am interested in yours. Gerson’s position is ridiculous, just as Eleanor Holmes Norton’s position that Democrats have to vote for the measure to “save” the President is shockingly un-American, and pulsatingly irresponsible.
Congress’s obligation is to do what is in the best interests of the United States of America, not its President. The United States is not made stronger or more credible by its legislature showing that it will authorize deadly force against a sovereign nation simply to save face for an arrogant and incompetent Chief Executive who has already avoided the consequences of his own inept leadership and poor judgment too many times. Allow him to duck accountability again—Obama’s entire tenure has been about ducking accountability—and we will only face a worse consequence of it down the line.
This fiasco was inevitable, and I predicted it long ago. The United States of America, not for the first time, but certainly at one of the worst times, has allowed itself to be led by a man who has no instincts or talent for leadership, and worse, appears to be an incurable narcissist. Historians… those who have the integrity, that is…can debate how this came to pass, but for anyone objective, the evidence is conclusive, with the Syria mess the decisive evidence.
Rejecting Obama’s politically and personally motivated crack-brained scheme to kill some Syrians in order to “punish” a ruthless dictator who has proven beyond all question that he doesn’t care a fig about killing Syrians, all while risking a Middle East conflagration, on the Bizarro World logic that the U.S. will be enforcing an international ban that the U.N. has said it is illegal for the U.S. to enforce—my brain hurts—- will not make the U.S. look weak. Following a leader who is leading a nation to do wrong, and dangerous wrong at that, is not a show of strength in any way. It constitutes proof of moral, ethical and democratic collapse. What other wrongful and dangerous acts by a desperate and over-matched leader will such a Congress support?
From the beginning, this President has been held to a lesser standard than any previous President, by his supporters, by his party, by the news media, and by his race. I believe, and have written here, that this has done Barack Obama no favors. Most Presidents have grown in the office, having learned from their mistakes and heeding just criticism of them. This one has not, and in fact has gotten progressively more remote, disengaged, dishonest and political as his tenure has proceeded. In this he has been unwittingly encouraged by such pundits as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who recently confirmed that the President can still “send a thrill up his leg” when he speaks, after admitting, finally, that Obama lacks basic leadership skills. Matthews has led the despicable claim that all opposition to Obama is personal and racist, and enabled Obama to believe it. Most of the mainstream media has embraced this argument, to render this President remarkably immune from the kind of probing and healthy criticism all American leaders deserve, and need.
We all know why, though most are reluctant or afraid to state it. Barack Obama is the United States’ Jackie Robinson. Much…too much, really…was riding on Obama’s success as the first black President, when his success as just a President was crucial enough. We needed him to be great, for so many reasons, not the least of which was Jackie’s reason: a brilliant, successful, unifying, great black man in a a position where no black man had been before would have done so much to eradicate what remains of racism in the United States. It was understandable that wanting this so much, many of us were overcome by confirmation bias….understandable, but especially in the case of the news media, not excusable.
Obama isn’t Jackie Robinson. He is Pumpsie Green, the first black player for the Boston Red Sox, the last team to integrate, who arrived with inflated expectations and who quickly proved to be a marginal talent at best. The Red Sox remained a racist organization for years, but they didn’t make the mistake of building their team around Pumpsie, or batting him clean-up. Later, genuinely talented black players like Earl Wilson, Reggie Smith, and George Scott helped change a racist organization into one that today looks upon a black man, David Ortiz, as the symbol of the club. The damage of a too-flawed trailblazer can be repaired.
So can the damage done by weak Presidents, though the damage can be horrible. The double whammy of Presidents Pierce (D) and Buchanan (D) led us into the Civil War. Presidents Grant (R) and Hayes (R) fueled a corrupt corporate culture and allowed Jim Crow to get a strangle-hold on the South. Harding (R), Coolidge (R) and Hoover (R) were a triple whammy of weakness, and plunged us into The Great Depression. The job of a republic, however, and indeed one of the objectives of the U.S. Constitution, is to limit the damage of a misguided or unqualified Chief Executive, not to follow him blindly, or make a weak President appear strong and wrong at the same time.
If a member of Congress agrees that limited missile strikes on Syria at this time is the right decision and in the best interests of the United States and its reputation abroad, then that member should vote yes. Voting yes, however, to rescue an incompetent President from the humiliation he both deserves and cannot avoid, is a betrayal of duty and common sense.