If knowing how to vote in Congress were just a matter of counting emails and phone messages, this would be an easy week for the members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
Both of Maine’s senators and both representatives report that their offices have been flooded with calls and letters from constituents who are overwhelmingly opposed to a unilateral military response to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons. This mirrors national reports, in which Americans from across the political spectrum are saying that they don’t want to get committed to another war in the Middle East.
But voting in Congress is not just a matter of counting items in the mailbag, and unless the Russian-Syrian plan to surrender all chemical weapons is more than a stunt, the days ahead will be anything but easy. Left without any attractive options, Congress should not rush into a decision that the country will later regret.
Caution here is not easy. Chemical weapons have no target. They kill everything in their path, so they are good only for slaughter, not war. The world has largely been able to keep a lid on the use of poison gas for 95 years, since the end of World War I, and common use of this weapon of mass destruction now would introduce a new age of terror.
Members of Congress are being lobbied ferociously to uphold this international norm and not undercut the credibility of the president of the United States. They are being told that it’s time to decide whether we should do something or sit back and do nothing.
But that’s really the wrong question. It’s not a choice between doing something and doing nothing, it’s whether what the president has proposed doing is the right response.
In answering that question, public opinion should be considered, even if it’s not the only factor. There is no consensus in favor of millitary strikes, either nationally or internationally. France is the only member of the G20 to agree that a military intervention is called for. Even some of the president’s regular allies in Congress are also reluctant to commit.
Why the cold response? Because while it’s easy to see how a military intervention in the Middle East could go wrong, it’s difficult to imagine what success would look like, or how what’s proposed would do much good at all.
Airstrikes that are small enough to reassure the doves (an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” promised Secretary of State John Kerry) but aggressive enough to win over the hawks won’t send a clear message. It could be enough to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad without crippling it. If the Syrian army takes revenge on the civilian population, with or without chemical weapons, what, then, would be our response?
Is there a realistic goal and a strategy to achieve it? Are the American people behind the strategy and willing to stay with this course until the job is done? Is there a clean way out?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then members of Congress should think twice about supporting this resolution. If the answer to all of them is “no,” Congress should be thinking about what kind of plan would work.
Moving slowly won’t be easy, but with so much at stake, it’s what’s called for.