Sunday, September 8, 2013

Obama, Congress and the big stick -- Sept. 5, 2013 column


President Theodore Roosevelt’s 20th century admonition that in foreign affairs it’s best to “speak softly but carry a big stick” is getting a 21st century makeover.

President Barack Obama speaks softly but he wants Congress to help wield the stick.

On the verge of authorizing limited military strikes against Syria, the president pivoted when expected support disappeared. The United Nations is “paralyzed,” he said, and even ally Great Britain declined to get involved after a negative vote in Parliament. More than 200 members of Congress had signed letters urging Obama to seek congressional approval before taking action.

And so he paused the march to war, or missile strikes, and launched a campaign to win congressional and international approval to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people. 

“Our democracy is stronger when the president and the people’s representatives stand together,” Obama said.

For the president, the move is as risky as it was surprising. Congress and the president rarely stand or even sit together, and approval is far from assured. So while the Senate convened hearings, Obama and his team tried to marshal the power of persuasion on TV and in closed-door meetings.

In a sign of the showdown looming on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to 7 Wednesday to support the limited use fo force. Obama faces opposition from progressive Democrats as well as from isolationist Republicans. 

U.S. officials say conclusive evidence shows that about 2:30 in the morning of Aug. 21, rockets carrying sarin nerve gas blasted the sleeping suburbs of Damascus. Among the more than 1,400 people killed were 426 children.

Obama conceded that Americans are war weary, but he asked: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

What, indeed? Once again, though, the age-old debate between intervention and isolation is playing out on Capitol Hill.

Since President George Washington warned against permanent alliances with foreign countries, Americans have been leery of taking a role in foreign conflicts.

World War I was supposed to be an exception. President Woodrow Wilson argued that it was in our national interest to maintain a peaceful world order. After the war to end all wars, memories of horrific casualties sent us back to the anti-intervention corner.

In the 1940s, it took the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to galvanize Americans behind the war. And only after 9/11 did we take the plunge in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This time? Questions abound about the goals and consequences of air strikes and an exit strategy, but Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says he believes Congress ultimately will rise to the occasion.

“This isn’t about Barack Obama vs. the Congress,” Rogers told CNN. “This isn’t about Republicans vs. Democrats. This has a very important worldwide reach in this decision.”

But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others say military action in Syria would be a mistake. Paul predicted the Senate will back Obama but on NBC’s “Meet the Press” gave the odds of “at least 50-50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the Syrian war.”

Obama needs Congress’ blessing now in the event future crises require military intervention. He’s caught between the rock and hard place of his own words. His assertion that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that demanded retaliation had forced his hand while his remarks as a presidential candidate held him back:

“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” he told the Boston Globe in 2007.

Obama surely has learned through experience how much easier it is to campaign than to govern. Governing requires hard choices and speaking softly. It’s time for Congress to back the president on use of the big stick.


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