Monday, September 9, 2013

If Congress Says No To Syria...

I've been spending this week reading up on Syria, for obvious reasons, and the English Civil War, for a class I'll be observing this fall. One boon to studying 17th century England is that it provides a useful reminder of just how bloody and disruptive has been the history of the West. The widespread contemporary view of the Middle East is of backward nations propped up by brittle political structures and rent by religious strife. That was England in the 1600s: kings held power with fluctuating, sometimes dubious authority; religious sects challenged the Church from conservative and radical postures; a titanic civil war unseated the king and resulted in his beheading; attempts to institute a stable political system failed, as power resided with the victorious army and its captain; and persecution of nonconformists and ethnic others occurred frequently. It was, as Christopher Hill once wrote, "A Century of Revolution."

This is not to suggest that there are specific and illuminating parallels stretching between England then and the Middle East today—just an observation that sometimes the sweep of history presents broad patterns that can teach us humility if nothing else. I should also say that in reading about Syria and England this week I have become acutely conscious of how much the word parliamentary looks like the word paramilitary to groggy morning eyes. Take my word for it, that can make some sentences confusing.

But what to make of Syria? To ignore for a moment the moral implications of the violence in Syria or a potential military strike by the United States, it is fascinating how the prospect of military action has cut across the familiar political fault lines in Washington. Tea Partiers, libertarians, and progressives find themselves on the same side opposing intervention, while establishment liberals, neoconservative cretins, and Republican hawks believe intervention is essential to preserve American prestige and the integrity of international law. I'm not sure what to think, though there is a handy rule of thumb which says when in doubt perhaps not going to war is the responsible course of action.

Most people have been writing about how Obama has painted himself into a corner and now is in danger of losing the upcoming Congressional vote on military action after having squandered his chance at the G20 for marshaling an international coalition. I suppose he has, but I'm not convinced the consequences are so dire as, say, Ross Douthat claims in his latest column:
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.
But the United States hasn't made a commitment yet. Oh, there's all that talk about the "red line" comment of Obama's, etc. etc., however the President chose last week to link action in Syria to a Congressional vote. He did not have to. Should Congress vote the measure down (which looks more and more likely), Obama can defend American inaction quite truthfully as the will of the people, reserving to his office the judgment and power to act in the future. A collapse of the global system is not at stake here. The implications of a no vote, I think, are these:
  1. It will reaffirm that shocks to the global system are mitigated through coalitions using the mechanisms of international organizations. Although the world operates day to day using the old (possibly outdated) model of the sovereign nation-state, multi-lateral endorsement of military actions across borders has for a long time brought legitimacy, and therefore a semblance of order, to the community of nations. This is why the UN, NATO, and even the Arab League are important despite their numerous detractors. Even the neo-cons in the Bush administration knew this, which is why they scratched together the "Coalition of the Willing." (Don't forget Poland.)
  2. If we do nothing in Syria (which, it bears repeating, might be the right course of action), the critical reason will not be Obama, or the UN, or even the Tea Party. The parts each of them have played in this saga are, of course, impossible to ignore, but they are all swept up in the more powerful historical current that is the legacy of the Iraq War. This moment is one of the many costs of the Iraq War. The international community has refused to follow America down another sandy rabbit hole in the Middle East after the decade-long debacle that began with accusations and sketchy intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, the specter of Iraq loomed over the vote in the British Parliament—not to be mistaken for the British paramilitary, which does not vote nearly so often—and had Parliament voted to endorse action, the subsequent debate in Congress would have followed a different narrative altogether.
  3. There is another potential casualty at stake, and that is Obama's domestic agenda, which has already become imperiled. The no-vote on Syria (indeed, the very time it will take to conduct the vote) will spare virtually no time at all in the legislative calendar for something like immigration reform. That subject is not quite so desperate as the current crisis in Syria; nevertheless lives are at stake there too.

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