If you've ever had the notion that the United States of America's place in the world is fundamentally untenable, you are doubtless concerned by what is happening with regard to Syria. Once again, we find ourselves on the brink of what we call "intervention," a term that can encompass all things from occupation to a few cruise missiles, artfully placed to make some kind of point. The future is open ended, but none of the ends are attractive. And in the era of the Imperial Presidency, we have become much too accustomed to being led into this sort of adventure.
Something a little different is happening this time. President Obama, who has thus far seemed to accept the premise that a president may make war as he sees fit, has invited Congress to make the decision of whether to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons. That this seems new and different should be evidence enough that our system has plainly gotten away from us. Congress is not presently in session to make that decision, but it will be very soon. And when our honorable senators and representatives do finally meet, the ensuing events will matter hugely. This episode will make a fine case study in the role of constitutional government in foreign policy, and will say much about how our constitution and our nation will change in the future. But it will be even more significant for the people of Syria
America teaches its children that we are powerful and that this is a good thing. But while it is obviously preferable to have some power rather than none, occupying the hegemonic status that the U.S. does is inevitably problematic. Hegemons hurt weaker nations almost without meaning to (to put it charitably), and they invariably rest upon institutional inequality on all scales, global and domestic. Our power was bought with a bitter price, that will grow more unpleasant with time.
America believes its power to be a good thing, because it enables the doing of good things. In principle, I believe in that. How could I not, educated as I was, brought up in the midst of star-spangled flags? But in acting as the Great Bastion of Freedom, the U.S. has changed itself and altered its constitutional system. The words on the parchment stay the same, but the system has grown to address the concerns of power. For example, the Congress may hold the exclusive right to declare war according to the text, but the Cold War taught us to accept that a war was sometimes only a "police action," and that a declaration of war was usually superfluous.
So what will Congress do about Syria? Honestly, the question nearly makes me cry. Obama has asked Congress to give him the authorization to make an initial strike, apparently against the judgment of his cabinet. But this Congress is objectively terrible, and the only sure thing is that its members will use this opportunity to make fools of themselves. It is very possible that they will give the president what he asks for, simply because the subject intimidates them.
But suppose for a moment that they do not say yes. The idea of intervention is unpopular, and the Republicans might well deny President Obama out of their usual spite. What happens next?
Obama's secretary of State, John Kerry, said today that the President has the right to strike whatever Congress says. He's plainly not the only one who thinks so. But what does Obama think? If Congress tells him no, would he change his approach? Having overruled his administration on seemingly constitutional grounds, will he stick to that principle come what may?
It is obvious by this point that the Imperial Presidency is alive and well in the Obama administration. It evidently takes more than hope to dismantle the rationale of power, and it is that rationale that informs Kerry's opinion, to say nothing of the NSA's adventures in domestic spying and the persecution of whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Syria's President Assad has called Obama weak already for deferring to Congress. An empire must abhor the appearance of weakness.
But Obama can do a great deal of good for the United States by respecting the decision of Congress in this matter. He can show with firm evidence that the spirit of constitutional government has not been fully choked in the thin air of global hegemony. If Congress tells him no, he should not attack Syria. If Congress modifies the plan he sent them, he should respect those changes. And if Congress rubber stamps him, the precedent of his having asked could still be useful. In any event, the effort to walk America back from an imperial foreign policy will be tasking. It would be wonderful to set a positive example of cooperation between the branches of government, especially given all the inexcusable nonsense that has made these years so hard.
I have advocated for changes in our Constitution in the past, on the grounds that such changes are desirable and necessary over time in any nation. It is not the Constitution of 1789 that is really at the crux of this issue, but the more general principle of constitutional government. This principle, not the text, is what sustains the republic. Thus far, Obama's approach on this specific issue is consistent with this principle, but much depends on what comes next.
All of this talk of principle, however important, ignores a crucial consideration. People are dying in Syria, and the situation is only growing more monstrous. Chemical weapons have been used and may well be used again. Assad is unacceptable, and though we've tolerated him in the past, that is no justification for tolerating him now. The rebels, should they succeed, may prove problematic down the line, but what could be worse than a hundred thousand dead?
The United States, for all its problems, is extraordinarily powerful. Sitting on all this power, it is hard to look at all this suffering and bloody stalemate and accept that nothing can be done, or that nothing should be done. Whatever consequences we create, there seems to be a moral imperative to do something to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. If power really can enable good deeds, then why should it be of no use here?
But there may be no good to be gained, even by firing a missile straight down Assad's throat. We can't afford another war like we had in Iraq. We can't afford to take responsibility for Syria's reconstruction. And we can ill use another cause celebre for al qaeda should order break down after our intervention.
What the people of Syria need is a strong cease-fire agreement, with international peace keepers to hold back any breaks. It is not obvious how any purely American intervention will accomplish that. It's also not clear how we can move the United Nations to impose a peace, especially given the behavior of Russia. Any responsible observer must agree that our choices our dire, but inaction is no less so.
I don't know what we can do in Syria, or what we should do. I don't think anyone really does. But for us, this is a test of our historical character, one of many points that will influence where we go from here. We cannot lose sight of the big picture, and we must be prepared to deal with whatever consequences arise.
So watch what Congress and President Obama do in the next few days. You will learn a lot about where this world is going by how they conduct themselves.