Syria And The Conservative Anti-Obama Reflex

Over at Salon, Joan Walsh despairs at the possibility that an honest, productive debate over the need to intervene militarily in Syria will fall victim to the “familiar dysfunctional ditch of Republicans abandoning their historic values to sabotage Obama, and Democrats putting the need to support their beleaguered president ahead of their need to craft a new national security policy.” She's talking primarily about the debate in Congress, now that President Obama is seeking legislative approval for the use of force, but there's also a great, big, gas-baggy media conversation to be had. And judging by the initial reaction to Obama's push to secure Congressional authorization, the conservative reflex to abandon principle and oppose Obama is already taking hold.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Kimberley Strassel whacks Obama for putting the Syria question before Congress, calling his “crude calculus” overtly political and asking: “When did a U.S. commander in chief last so cynically play politics with American credibility?” Per Strassel's reckoning, if Obama is going to intervene, he should own it:

Now trapped by his own declaration, Mr. Obama is reverting to the same strategy he has used in countless domestic brawls -- that is, to lay responsibility for any action, or failure of action, on Congress. The decision was made easier by the fact that Congress itself was demanding a say.

That proved too tempting for a president whose crude calculus is that Congress can now rescue him however it votes. Should Congress oppose authorizing action against Syria, he can lay America's failure to honor his promises on the legislative branch. Obama aides insist that even if Congress votes no, the president may still act -- though they would say that. The idea that Mr. Obama, having lacked the will to act on his own, would proceed in the face of congressional opposition is near-fantasy.

Now let's jump all the way back to March 2011, shortly after President Obama ordered military intervention in Libya. At the time, Strassel was incensed that Obama would order the use of force without consulting Congress, calling it bad policy and bad politics:

President Barack Obama is going on a week into military action in Libya. If he doesn't start explaining how and why, he's going to be fighting a rearguard action in Congress.

Commanders in chief are rightly accorded broad power to unilaterally order American military force. The smart ones understand they need to garner public and congressional support. Congress's backing is particularly crucial, given that body's own authority to play havoc with a military undertaking. In today's partisan political environment, presidential wooing is even more important.


This is what comes from waging war through the United Nations. The White House was determined not to move on Libya unless it could hide behind a U.N. resolution. The best that multinational body could muster was a vague and confused resolution backing efforts to stop Gadhafi from slaughtering civilians. That resolution, Mr. Obama's rationale for action, is now his constraint. To answer Congress's questions would require thinking and resolving beyond the U.N. remit. He's unwilling to do so.

The president seems instead to be hoping he can quickly hand this off to some other leader of the free world, and move on. But a failure in Libya will only bring more congressional questions. Better to define an actual U.S. strategy -- one that can succeed -- while Congress is still willing to listen.

You can argue that the circumstances surrounding Libya and Syria are different -- because they are -- but Strassel didn't leave a whole lot of wiggle room. Back when Obama didn't include Congress before ordering military action, she said Congressional consultation was the smart, prudent thing to do because the president needs political cover. Now that Obama is including Congress in the decision to initiate hostilities, she's calling it bad politics and trashing Obama for seeking political cover. The only consistency between Strassel's two positions is that they're anti-Obama.

The same reflex has also seized Fox News' senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano, who railed against the “terrible” War Powers Act when Obama was weighing unilateral action in Libya, but argued that it's “mystifying legally” that Obama would consult Congress on Syria when the War Powers Act allows him to act unilaterally.

It's difficult to have a serious, informed debate about the necessity of military action when influential right-leaning pundits are haphazardly jettisoning principle and contradicting themselves simply to be in opposition to a political figure they dislike.