The debate about American policy toward Syria demonstrates the extent to which rational political discussion in our country has deteriorated.

The damage done by this is of little significance compared to the terrible loss of life that is occurring in that country. I do not suggest any remote equivalence between the two, but the extent to which the argument about what American policy should be in this terrible situation has deteriorated into a combination of excessive partisanship and media bloody-mindedness deserves our attention.

Many Republicans who had been criticizing President Obama for refusing to arm the Syrian opposition, and some of whom advocated American combat aircraft establishing a “no fly” zone against the Syrian air force, suddenly became critics of any intervention whatsoever when the president proposed the limited strike to penalize President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Democracy does not require people who oppose a president’s military actions to stay silent in the interest of bipartisanship, but what we have here is the exact opposite: partisan opponents of the president completely reversing their position once the president moves in the direction they had previously attacked him for not taking. The argument that they are now critical of his doing anything because he is not doing more is not a serious one. There is a significant body of Republicans prepared to attack Obama for any decision he makes, even if that requires them to reverse positions they previously held.

The impulse to attack Obama no matter what he does goes beyond Republican partisanship. America’s media has demonstrated a similar eagerness to criticize Obama for taking a position that they had previously attacked other presidents for not espousing.

I am appalled at the extent to which journalists are criticizing the president for agreeing to do what many of them have long demanded: that a president of the United States planning to send America’s military into battle get the support of Congress.

People have long deplored the tendency for executive unilateralism in this area; presidential overreach has been criticized from all fronts. Members of Congress have frequently attacked presidents who engage in military action without congressional sanction. Indeed, one result of the Vietnam War was the War Powers Act, which specifically seeks to bar executive unilateralism.

So what happened when Obama asked Congress to authorize a military strike against Syria’s military to impose a punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons?

Instead of welcoming one of the first times a president explicitly declined to act unilaterally to engage in force, the media orchestrated a campaign to denounce him for “weakness.” Embarrassingly, some members of Congress even complained that this was a trick to ensnare them into making a tough decision that they preferred to duck.

Sending our military forces into battle, to kill or be killed, is the most solemn decision a democratic society can make. Before Obama agreed that it should be a joint executive-legislative one, there was a general consensus that this power-sharing was good for democracy; once the president agreed, instead of saluting the precedent he was setting of refusing to act unilaterally, the media decided to criticize him. (It is true that in many cases the journalists in question did not directly give their own opinions. The way you make your point if you are a reporter as opposed to a columnist is simply to be selective in whom you quote.)

I try hard to use words correctly, and so I hope I am doing that when I use the British expression “bloody-minded” to refer to an attitude in which people are determined to think, see and say the worst.

It is entirely legitimate to debate whether or not the decision to use force against Syria to protect an international sanction against chemical weapons is good public policy. But instead, we have seen a debate in which that point is eclipsed by partisan reversals and a media determination to find fault with the president whatever he does. In medieval England there was a phrase that said “the king can do no wrong,” which had a very specific meaning, namely that anything wrong should be attributed to the king’s advisers to protect the integrity of the monarchy. The current debate about Syria unfortunately demonstrates the extent to which we have a completely opposite philosophy governing the media, the Republican Party and many others: “The president can do no right.”

Rational debate about whether a particular public policy is a good or bad choice becomes impossible in such an atmosphere.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank


— Special to the Telegram