Barack Obama’s decision to put a resolution on military action to a vote in Congress before proceeding with his plans to attack Syria proves the timeless merit of Winston Churchill’s observation that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
Barack Obama Does the Right Thing: Calls for Congressional Vote Prior to Military Action Against Syria
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
What a difference two days make! In my commentary published in these pages two days ago on the defeat of David Cameron’s war motion in the House of Commons, I said it was unlikely that any similar democratic exercise would be conducted in the United States, where President Obama had already publicly claimed to have the authority to initiate military action against Damascus without seeking the advice and consent of Congress.
The President’s announcement yesterday during his brief speech to the nation from the White House Rose Garden that he will put a resolution on military action to a vote in Congress before proceeding with his plans to attack Syria proves the timeless value of Winston Churchill’s observation that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
This decision changes entirely the political landscape and has been subjected to media scrutiny in this morning’s press, with some of the most interesting insights posted in The New York Times and in the UK’s Guardian.
The Times’ White House correspondent, Mark Landler, provides a detailed description of the way Obama reached the decision, how he discussed it with his aides, who said what in the ‘war council,’ and how finally he shared the decision with his Secretaries of State, Defense and with the Vice President. From the account, which is backed up by similar though less extensive coverage on Bloomberg News, it is clear that the vote against Cameron in the Commons played a key role in Obama’s abandoning his plans to proceed without Congress on the Syrian strike because of his growing sense of isolation. To that were added new concerns over future relations with Capitol Hill on Iran and other foreign policy flash points where he may need the support of the legislature in the balance of his term and which he would jeopardize by overstepping Congress now.
Given Britain’s steadfast support for US military initiatives against perceived rogue states going back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Tony Blair was a major facilitator in the formation of a ‘coalition of the willing,’ the stumble and fall of Cameron on Thursday was surely a blow to presidential self-confidence. What is unsaid is that in the past week NATO also failed to fall into line with American policy. Leaks suggest that 12 member states flatly refused to support the US plans for a strike against Syria. In this context, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen very diplomatically explained on Friday that he sees no NATO role in a Syrian mission.
Indeed the only European leader publicly prepared to join the United States in a strike against Syria is Francois Hollande. In what is unmistakably a dig against the British, Secretary of State Kerry has just complimented the French for their stand, proving they are ‘America’s oldest ally.’ But that gives Washington cold comfort.
Before it entered upon its courageous and very responsible role in publishing the Snowden revelations about the abuses of US intelligence services, The Guardian was not on my radar screen. However, as I have now discovered in recent weeks the paper provides excellent coverage of the most important international developments surrounding Syria, and I find it an essential item in my daily news diet.
Today’s Guardian carries a particularly interesting discussion of how any vote on military intervention in Syria may play out in Congress. Support for the President’s motion among the Democratic leadership in Congress is certain, but a revolt among rank in file Congressmen is deemed entirely possible, and readers are reminded about the surprisingly close vote in the House in late July over a motion against the National Security Agency and its secret surveillance programs of American telecommunications and internet use revealed in the disclosures of Edward Snowden. Anti-war Representatives on the left of the Democratic Party and libertarian conservatives on the right of the Republican Party may once again make common cause against the swashbuckling and warmongering center of both parties. The outcome is unforeseeable.
Meanwhile a new blow against the sought-for coalition may be brewing. It is curious that the English-language press seems to have ignored the French press, where today’s Le Monde reports on the demands issued by the conservative Opposition to imitate Obama and hold a vote in parliament on the planned Syrian strike.
During the week gone by Francois Hollande very pointedly told journalists that he expected a blow against Syria to be made before 4 September. That timing would have suited perfectly his personal political agenda, coming before the French legislators return from summer recess. By delaying any military action till the week of 9 September at the earliest, President Obama has unwittingly put his French ally in harm’s way.
Indeed the call is for a formal vote to take place on precisely 4 September. While the initiative comes from the parties on the right, members of Hollande’s own Socialist Party are also said to have reservations about getting involved in the Syrian conflict. Needless to say, should this vote take place and should it go against Hollande, the repercussions in Washington would compound the damage to Obama’s cause in Congress.
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The latest public opinion polls in the 3 advanced democracies that have been in the news all show high levels of opposition to initiating military action against Syria. In France, 64% are said to be opposed; in the UK, 60% are opposed; and in the USA, just above 50% are opposed.
However, as is clear from the reportage on the latest political developments in the three respective capitals, the voice of the people is at best a background factor in the tug-of-war between Executive and Legislative branches and between party factions in a broader struggle for power in the legislatures.
In this sense the response of the three countries to the challenge of the Syrian crisis is a wonderful case study for testing the fundamental tenet of the Neocon ideology that dominates US foreign policy today, namely that only democratic nations are peaceful nations.
The people are not consulted at all. Consultation of their representatives is said to be optional. And when the legislatures are invited to weigh in, the political forces in play are far broader than the issues placed before the legislators. Contingency factors outweigh by far the substance.
Reaching back a bit in time to the period that preceded the advent of a full-blown Neoconservative ideology when US foreign policy debates were between the merely legalistic-moralistic minded majority in the Wilsonian idealist tradition and the Realpolitik school, we find in the writings of that school’s most important thinker of the 20th century, Hans Morgenthau, some words of wisdom, no less lapidary and timeless than the observation of Winston Churchill with which I began this commentary:
“Good motives give assurance against deliberately bad policies; they do not guarantee the moral goodness and political success of the policies they inspire. What is important to know, if one wants to understand foreign policy, is not primarily the motives of a statesman, but his intellectual ability to comprehend the essentials of foreign policy, as well as his political ability to translate what he has comprehended into successful political action.”
By this measure, the sitting U.S. President is unlikely to gain much traction for his cause in the U.S. Congress and may yet experience the same justified humiliation as the British Prime Minister.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.