Friday, December 6, 2013
I have mixed emotions about the fact that a majority of the American people are apparently opposed to any retaliation against President Assad of Syria for his undeniable use of chemical weapons to kill so many of his people.
On this specific issue, I disagree with that majority. But more generally, as someone who has been critical for a long time of our intervening militarily in the internal affairs of other nations, and of the hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent on that largely futile purpose, I am encouraged that the public has become legitimately skeptical of the notion that it is America's duty to police the world.
Making substantial progress in reducing our annual deficits without savaging our ability to protect our quality of life depends on substantial reductions in that military budget.
A prompt and total withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan -- ahead of the president's announced schedule -- is a better way to save money than penalizing Social Security recipients who are trying to live on $2,000 or less per month.
But what the president proposed to do in Syria is not Afghanistan, and it is certainly not Iraq. If he wanted to intervene directly on behalf of the Syrian opponents of Assad in an ongoing way, as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham advocate, I would have opposed it.
Their initial announcement that they would vote against what the president planned reassured me that it was a sensible approach that avoided the grave problems that would result from following their advice. Unfortunately, to get McCain's vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee broadened the mission in the resolution adopted. I hope the House rejects that approach.
Syria's use of chemical weapons to kill large numbers of people, mostly noncombatants (although the use of such weapons even in combat calls for condemnation), should be punished. If it is not, given the unfortunate efficacy of such weapons, it is certain to lead other regimes to follow suit.
A world in which combatants feel free to use chemical weapons without any fear of sanction is an increasingly dangerous one. Given the global interest in maintaining strong barriers to this, a strike that is limited in time and strictly targeted to Syrian weaponry is a prudent response to this breach of one of the few remaining international rules restraining barbarism.
It would be better if this could be done through the United Nations, but allowing Putin's affinity for a fellow autocrat to immunize Assad from paying any price for this action would be a terrible mistake.
It is important for members of Congress to make sure that the resolution authorizing this one-time attack is properly drawn.
We do have an unfortunate history of presidents proposing resolutions on the grounds that retaliation is called for against a specific act, but drafting them to enable a far broader and less justifiable set of actions.
Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 was one example. George W. Bush's resolution after 9/11 is another. In that case, the atmosphere in the country made it very hard to guard against this problem, and I acknowledge being one of those who voted to authorize the attack on Afghanistan (all but one member of Congress did the same, not expecting it to be used as it was, for example, to detain people within the U.S.).
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