My subject today is one more example of the distortion of past events and bad history that forms the basis for a serious error in the discussion of current issues.

This is the Republican attack on President Obama for weakening America’s role in international affairs, blaming him for the world’s inability to prevent Russia from detaching Crimea from Ukraine and further threatening Ukraine’s integrity and stability.

President Putin’s behavior in this affair is outrageous. The brutal disregard for the right of the Ukrainians to make their own choices about how they are governed recalls some of the worst examples of Soviet behavior. But there is a more recent post-Cold War example of our inability to protect smaller nations against aggressive Russian behavior.

That example is the entirely similar lack of protection of a nation that had been an even stronger ally of ours than Ukraine from the loss of significant parts of its territory to Russian force. That country is Georgia. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili had strongly associated his country with the U.S., even sending troops to fight on our side in Afghanistan. But his alliance with us did not lead President George Bush to take any effective action to counter a Russian-inspired secession of two Georgian territories, nor did it in any way hinder Putin from sending Russian troops in to defeat the much smaller Georgian army in a war that has resulted in Georgia’s loss of those territories.

The reason Bush did not do anything is that there was no effective action he could have taken. He clearly articulated our objections to the Russian military assault and imposed sanctions. They did absolutely no good for Georgia’s territorial integrity. The problem is that short of sending a massive military force into that area – which Bush correctly realized was wholly impractical given the geostrategic realities – there was nothing he could do.

Obama’s sanctions and effort to promote an international response to Russia’s Ukrainian intrusion were tougher than Bush’s, although the reality of Russian forces on the borders of a county that used to be part of the Soviet Union has similarly frustrated their impact. The point is that Republican claims that it is Obama’s weakness that rendered America relatively ineffective in this case entirely ignore the example of what happened under the Bush presidency.

It is particularly egregious when the Republican argument is made by senators who repeatedly urge much more significant American military intervention in various parts of the globe, while simultaneously insisting on reducing the budget deficit without any tax increases to pay for these multibillion dollar military activities. And their argument that Obama’s failure to bomb Syria after it used chemical weapons is a major reason that Putin felt free to act is mindless.

The fact that Bush had launched two wars in the Middle East clearly had no impact on Russia’s decision to use force against Georgia. No serious student of international affairs, Russia or any other relevant subject believes that Putin’s hypernationalistic resentment against the West, his unfortunate nostalgia for the old Soviet Union empire and his consequent conviction that Russia has the right to set strict parameters on what those nations are allowed to do were in any way affected by American decisions to use military force in other countries or not.

Moreover, this “always blame Obama” attitude that our right wing has adopted is wholly mistaken in describing the decision not to bomb Syria. In this case, it is not simply the president’s political opposition that persists in a serious misstatement of historical fact. A number of other analysts ignore history by treating Obama’s decision in the Syria case as an example of his unwillingness to use force, rather than an example of his adopting a policy that many people, including several of those critical of him, had been advocating for decades.

Since the Vietnam War, there has been a strong current of American opinion critical of the notion that presidents have the right to send American military personnel into combat, other than in immediate self-defense, without a concurring vote of Congress. This criticism of unilateral presidential war-making has come from all points on the political spectrum and has generally been supported by the responsible media. I was in Congress when President Bill Clinton intervened in southern Yugoslavia – ultimately very successfully – and I remember the complaints of the Republicans in Congress that he was not getting Congressional approval before doing so. In the ’70s, this strong sentiment led to the overwhelming passing of President Richard Nixon’s objection of the War Provisions Act, although it has proven ineffective in practice, substantially because the courts will not enforce a claim by Congress that the president is ignoring it.

The president is being attacked because he is the first president in the post-World War II period to honor the view that sending our military people into combat to kill or be killed is so solemn a decision that it should not be made by the president alone. People appear to have forgotten that Obama wanted to bomb Syria after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. There was a large outcry against that from much of the public, including many Republicans, while a few of the committed hawks like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham wanted him to do more. In a historic decision, the president legitimately decided that he would not take unilateral action in this case but would ask Congress to join him. It soon became clear that reflecting strong public opinion, Congress would not give him that approval. Consequently, Obama withheld bombing Syria, not because of some weakness on his part or his misunderstanding of the appropriateness of physical force in some cases, but because he was responding to the genuine desire of many to stop the practice of unilateral presidential war-making.

Since the decision not to bomb Syria was one made jointly by the president and Congress, rather than criticize Obama, we should be celebrating the achievement of a longtime goal of many, that the most solemn decision a country can make, sending its forces into war, was made with the broadest participation of society: the president and Congress together.

It is especially ironic that Republicans are criticizing Obama because he decided to abide by congressional will in the case of Syria, given that their major attack on him is that this is an autocrat who disregards congressional sentiment. The Republicans have two criticisms to make of the president. One, he acts without congressional approval. Two, he won’t act without congressional approval. Their vehemence in making both of these entirely contradictory claims makes it clear that what is at stake in their attack on the president has nothing to do with principle, but is rather a perpetuation of their decision, made when he first took office, to obstruct him at every turn.

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

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

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