President Barack Obama asks members of Congress to fulfill his threat that Bashar Assad’s regime would suffer “enormous consequences” if the Syrian leader used, or even transported, his stores of chemical weapons.
Any presidential call to arms deserves scrutiny and, if it’s deemed justified, citizens’ deference: The first duty of the person we elect as commander in chief is to defend the U.S. and its interests as he or she sees fit. Obama’s backers say congressional refusal to heed this call to arms would, because of his numerous and globally broadcast threats, savage the credibility of the U.S. government in capitals worldwide.
Yes, the credibility of a president, and a Congress, matters around the globe. But for this republic to command the respect and cooperation of its citizens, that cred needs to be most fundamental, most solid, here at home. Yet at this juncture, proponents of an attack have not established the necessity that such a request demands. Until the president builds that credibility, a congressional vote authorizing an attack risks alienating and inflaming an American populace that neither understands the need for military action nor trusts Washington to avoid a debacle.
The administration makes a compelling case for a harsh response against Syria, but not for why that task falls to a Coalition of One, or even a Coalition of Not Very Many. The point here is not that public opinion polls find strong opposition among Americans: We elect members of Congress to vote from their consciences and special knowledge, not merely to do whatever a majority of their constituents want. But going to war — and however narrowly “tailored” the mission, that is what we as a nation are debating — needs to be demonstrably in this country’s interest.
President Obama has not yet established that case to anything approaching the satisfaction of his fellow Americans. He may do so in the days and weeks ahead — time he also can exploit to insist on United Nations involvement in avenging, and ending, the horror show in Syria. If Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to veto U.N. action, and make slaughter in Syria his wholly owned subsidiary, at least he’ll have done so in public.
If and when Obama does amass domestic and global support, we may join him in advocating that our senators and representatives authorize military action.
At this point, though, we cannot ask members of Congress to support his call for a use-of-force resolution.