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Cowardice and Conscience

The president's credibility isn't at risk from a "no" vote---but Congress's credibility is at risk if it supports war with Syria.

A lot of observers I respect, conservative and liberal … want to see the war-weary American public vindicated at the expense of a Washington establishment that’s spent a decade badly overestimating the efficacy of military interventions. And they hope that in the long run, the shock of a “no” vote might help restore some of the constitutional balance that’s been lost to presidential power grabs and Congressional abdications.

But it’s important to recognize just how unprecedented such a vote would be, and how far the ripples might ultimately spread. It wouldn’t just be a normal political rebuke of President Obama. It would be a remarkable institutional rebuke of his presidency, with unknowable consequences for the credibility of American foreign policy, not only in Syria but around the world.

Presidential credibility is an intangible thing, and the term has been abused over the years by overeager hawks and cult-of-the-presidency devotees. But the global system really does depend on other nations’ confidence that the United States means what it says — that the promises the White House and the State Department make are binding, that our military commitments aren’t just so much bluster, and that when the president speaks on foreign policy he has the power to live up to his words.

It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked this credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance. But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.

This is not an argument that justifies voting for a wicked or a reckless war, and members of Congress who see the Syria intervention in that light must necessarily oppose it.

But if they do, they should be prepared for the consequences: a damaged president, a potentially crippled foreign policy and a long, hard, dangerous road to January 2017.

This is very soberly argued by Ross Douthat, but I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny. Congress, if it votes not, would not be refusing to back up an American treaty obligation, nor would it even be rejecting a painstakingly negotiated international agreement. In other words, it would neither be going back on America’s sworn word, nor undermining the ability of the Executive to negotiate. It would be refusing to endorse a decision to take aggressive action that is not required by any treaty obligation and that appears to have been prompted by an off-the-cuff remark. If, in future, foreign capitals doubt whether such remarks are to be taken seriously unless they either fit into longstanding policy or are corroborated by other policymakers, that’s all to the good.

The Obama Presidency will indeed likely suffer a serious blow if the President is rebuked by Congress. The only plausible reason why the President went to Congress at all is the fear of undertaking such an unpopular (not to mention ill-conceived) military action with no political cover (not to mention legal warrant) whatsoever. He is patently looking for somebody to back him up. If nobody does, it will be plain that he has suffered what in a parliamentary system would be a loss of confidence, which in such a system would result in a change in government.

Because we do not live in a parliamentary system, after such a vote we’ll simply have to muddle through. But muddle through we will—and have, many times before, through far more serious crises in confidence. I mean, good heavens—the House of Representatives impeached the last Democratic President, and not only did the heavens not fall but there was no discernible diminution on the President’s authority in any sphere. Presidents Ford and Carter faced much more serious rebukes from Congress in foreign policy where there was far clearer damage to Presidential credibility. We don’t generally count their Presidencies as successes—but America’s foreign policy was not crippled. If President Obama loses this vote, he will just have to count his votes more carefully in the future before committing himself where America does not already have clear and binding treaty obligations. Why again would that be so terrible?

Moreover, how much worse would the Obama Administration—and America’s foreign policy—be damaged if it gets bogged down in a proper war in Syria that the country largely opposes? Or, alternatively, if it limits itself to a pinprick response, and al-Assad continues to prosecute his suppression of the rebellion with maximal brutality (whether or not he uses chemical weapons in so doing)? Even if all we care about is the President’s credibility, shouldn’t those possible negative consequences of action be weighed in the balance?

Indeed, the branch whose credibility is at greatest risk right now is Congress. If Congress provides a rubber-stamp authorization for this war against its better judgment, with negligible international support and no warrant under international law, with no popular support and no national interest at stake, and with the Administration making an almost shockingly incoherent case for action, the only possible reason would be the one that Douthat offers: the fear that, if Congress ever dared to have an independent opinion on foreign policy, the result would be a crippled Presidency and a wounded America.

I prefer the analysis Douthat brought to bear in an earlier blog post, when he considered the Constitutional consequences of a “no” vote:

The official “lesson” that the president’s words and choices are delivering is not one that actually elevates Congress back to its Article I level of authority. Rather, it’s one that treats Congress as a kind of ally of last resort, whose backing remains legally unnecessary for warmaking (as the White House keeps strenuously emphasizing, and as its conduct regarding Libya necessarily implies), and whose support is only worth seeking for pragmatic and/or morale-boosting reasons once other, extra-constitutional sources of legitimacy (the U.N. Security Council, Britain, etc.) have turned you down. The precedent being set, then, is one of presidential weakness, not high-minded constitutionalism: Going to Congress is entirely optional, and it’s what presidents do when they’re pitching wars that they themselves don’t fully believe in, and need to rebuild credibility squandered by their own fumbling and failed alliance management. What future White House would look at that example and see a path worth following?

Ah, you might say, but if Congress actually votes the Syria authorization down, then future presidents will feel constrained by the threat of a similar congressional veto whether they want to emulate Obama or not. Except that it’s actually more likely that future presidents will look at a congressional rejection in the case of Syria and see a case for going to Congress even less frequently than recent chief executives have done. The lesson will be clear enough: Presidents who ignore Congress’s Article I powers (Clinton in Kosovo, Obama in Libya) get away with it, while presidents who respect those powers set themselves up for a humiliation. It would be one thing if Congress were clearly the assertive party here — if President Obama had gone to war without asking for authorization, for instance, and had then seen funding for the operation immediately cut off and articles of impeachment issued. But since nobody imagines that would have happened, a defeat here will look much like an unforced executive branch error, rather than a case of Congress breaking decisively with its ongoing tendency to abdicate to the other branches. And future administrations will act accordingly.

I think that’s all about right. Except that it’s not a precedent of weakness that’s being set— it’s a fact of weakness, in this President in this situation, that’s being revealed. If Congress votes no, that fact will be confirmed. If Congress votes yes, that fact will be obscured. And if Congress votes yes against its better judgment, then the precedent being set will be that this is Congress’s job, to refuse to exercise its judgment for the sake of protecting the President—not the country; the President—from his own errors. That is a terrible precedent to set—and a particularly terrible one for someone who, like Douthat, disapproves of the trend toward Congressional abdication of responsibility, to semi-advocate setting.

If Congress votes “yes,” and does so for the reasons Douthat articulates (fear of crippling the Presidency), then “authorization” by Congress will have been reduced to a literal formality. How is that better than having a future President try to avoid facing Congress (and possibly face rebuke for doing so)? How, in particular, does it make it more likely that future Congresses will have the courage to stand up to Presidents who ignore or try to railroad them?

Moreover, a future President would have to consider not only the risk of going to Congress and losing, but would understand that this risk reflected real concern on the part of Congress of the political risk of voting yes to war. Such a President would necessarily be more cautious about committing America militarily in ambiguous situations, if only for fear of taking all that political risk on him- or herself.

Even if you support a “robust” American foreign policy, I think there’s a good case for voting against bombing Syria, rather than risk damaging the cause of world-policing with the precedent of such a poorly-considered police action. But if you are concerned about America’s extremely forward concept of “defense,” then the case for rejecting an authorization for war in Syria is very clear.

So this thread of anxiety about inaction and crippled Executives, including from someone like Douthat who has grown increasingly skeptical of the Washington consensus on foreign policy?

The great exponent of this anxiety in the personal sphere (which, in his case, was emphatically also political) was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and his most famous exposition the soliloquy that begins “To be or not to be,” and ends thusly:

Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action.

Thinking too much about the possible consequences of one’s actions can, indeed, puzzle the will. The sort of person who goes into politics is never the sort of person who wants to be known as a Hamlet—as indecisive, lacking in backbone, more inclined to interpret the world in various ways than to change it. Better to lack a conscience if the alternative is to be a coward, and lose the name of action.

But it’s worth remembering: the action that Hamlet is perseverating about in this speech, fearing that he lacks the courage to overcome his conscience?

It’s suicide.



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