September 8, 2013

Barney Frank: U.S. should punish Assad but limit its intervention

Public opposition to a U.S. strike is a good sign, but responding to the barbarism of chemical weapons' use is needed.

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In the much less panic-stricken atmosphere that prevails today, I hope that my former colleagues will insist that what they vote for allows a retaliatory attack in response to the use of chemical weapons, and nothing more.

Drafting that language carefully gives binding legal force to the growing recognition by the American public that we should be much more restrained in sending our military into violent internal disputes than we have been in the past. As I said, I welcome that healthy shift in attitude, and I believe it is important that the response to Assad's use of chemical weapons be carried out in a manner consistent with that sense of restraint.

There is one other aspect of this debate that very much troubles me. Once the president announced he would ask for congressional approval before taking action, much of the media have acted in a way that confirms my skeptical view of their approach. Instead of noting that the president was conforming to constitutional, democratic principles in submitting this to Congress for full debate and a vote of the people's representatives, commentary has predominantly stressed the views of those who sadly equate respect for democracy with presidential weakness.

I am convinced that if the president had acted unilaterally, the media, with a preference for negative judgments about government action, would be full of quotations and commentary from people critical of his failure to involve Congress. For them, no answer the president could give would be the right one.

I hope my former colleagues vote yes on a carefully drafted resolution that punishes Assad for ignoring the consensus against the use of chemical weapons. (I would vote no if the McCain-broadened Senate resolution were before me.) It will encourage others to emulate him if he is allowed to do so without sanction.

But if a majority of either house votes no, that will not be a sign of weakness on the part of the president. It will be an important indication that, to quote one of Obama's Illinois predecessors, "government by the people has not disappeared" from the United States.

The notion that the more important the decision, the less genuine participation there should be in making it is a fundamentally anti-democratic one. Only in media strongly inclined to be critical of whatever decision is made will that point be lost.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts. You can follow him on Twitter: @BarneyFrank


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