On the Verge of Appeasement in Syria

Obama’s “war weariness” smacks of the 1930s. Are the lessons the same?

President Barack Obama walks back to the Oval Office after he made a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
See more stories about...
Michael Hirsh
Sept. 1, 2013, 11:15 a.m.

World War II began 74 years ago Sunday when Ger­man troops in­vaded Po­land. The in­va­sion con­clus­ively dis­cred­ited the concept of “ap­pease­ment” as a for­eign policy for, well, the next 74 years. But if the U.S. Con­gress op­poses au­thor­iz­a­tion of the mil­it­ary mis­sion to Syr­ia that Pres­id­ent Obama has now handed off to it, and if Obama uses that as an ex­cuse to back fur­ther away from en­force­ment of his “red line,” the “A” word will likely come to dom­in­ate the in­ter­na­tion­al de­bate once again.

And Barack Obama, who in his first term was known as the van­quish­er of Osama bin Laden, could come out of his second look­ing more like Neville Cham­ber­lain.

I don’t want to over­state things. Bashar al-As­sad, a tin­pot dic­tat­or who is fight­ing only for his own sur­viv­al, is no Hitler. He’s not set to over­run an en­tire con­tin­ent. And the “les­sons of Mu­nich” and the dangers of ap­pease­ment are gen­er­ally over­drawn. But, after all, it was Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry who lumped As­sad with the Fuehr­er on the talk shows Sunday, say­ing that he “now joins the list of Ad­olf Hitler and Sad­dam Hus­sein [who] have used these weapons in time of war.” (Tech­nic­ally, Hitler’s only use of gas was not on the bat­tle­field but to kill mil­lions in ex­term­in­a­tion camps.)

These are also the clear im­plic­a­tions of the pres­id­ent’s own words. Already the United Na­tions, NATO, and Great Bri­tain have failed to en­force his red line against chem­ic­al weapons use. Only the United States, with the pos­sible help of France, stands in the way of al­low­ing As­sad to grin tri­umphantly atop the WMD mas­sacre he au­thor­ized, to do it again and again, and thus make it more ac­cept­able in­ter­na­tion­ally. As Obama said in his Rose Garden state­ment Sat­urday: “If we won’t en­force ac­count­ab­il­ity in the face of this hein­ous act, what does it say about our re­solve to stand up to oth­ers who flout fun­da­ment­al in­ter­na­tion­al rules? To gov­ern­ments who would choose to build nuc­le­ar arms? To ter­ror­ists who would spread bio­lo­gic­al weapons? To armies who carry out gen­o­cide?”

So the stakes look very high in­deed. All of which makes Obama’s oth­er an­nounce­ment on Sat­urday so un­set­tling. Obama said 1) Mil­it­ary force against Syr­ia is jus­ti­fied; 2) that he has de­cided to use it; and 3) that he be­lieves he has the au­thor­ity to do so right now. But then he de­clared that he’s go­ing to ask Con­gress for ap­prov­al that, by his own ac­count, he doesn’t need. Thus, a pres­id­ent who for the last four years has had no com­punc­tion about uni­lat­er­ally de­cid­ing whom to launch drone strikes against or whom to spy on has ef­fect­ively sur­rendered a chunk of con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity to a frac­tious, un­re­li­able and polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated Con­gress over the is­sue of re­dress­ing the per­il­ous pre­ced­ent set by As­sad.

It may well be that this is “the right thing to do for our demo­cracy,” as Obama said. But pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents, both Demo­crat and Re­pub­lic­an, have said oth­er­wise. They have de­clared even the War Powers Act (which gives Obama the au­thor­ity to at­tack Syr­ia for 60 days be­fore ask­ing for con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al) to be an un­con­sti­tu­tion­al in­fringe­ment of pres­id­en­tial power.

The risk of Obama’s han­dover to Con­gress is that, as Susan Page wrote in USA Today, “he has weakened his own pres­id­ency — what hap­pens if he doesn’t want to seek con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion the next time? — and even the pres­id­ency it­self. That ar­gu­ment is part of the reas­on that Ron­ald Re­agan didn’t seek con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion be­fore or­der­ing the in­va­sion of Gren­ada, why George H.W. Bush didn’t seek au­thor­iz­a­tion be­fore launch­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion in Panama, why Bill Clin­ton didn’t seek au­thor­iz­a­tion be­fore or­der­ing the bomb­ing of Kosovo.”

Obama is feel­ing lonely at the top be­cause he doesn’t have the U.N., NATO, or even the Brit­ish be­hind him this time. Still, it is more than a little odd that he is turn­ing for com­pan­ion­ship to the Con­gress that has made a mock­ery of his every ini­ti­at­ive un­til now. And Obama has not been con­sist­ent in this policy. “If from the be­gin­ning he said something to the ef­fect of, ‘I’m a con­sti­tu­tion­al schol­ar. I think the Con­sti­tu­tion in­tends for the use of mil­it­ary force to be jus­ti­fied, and Con­gress has to ap­prove. So I will use my pres­id­ency to make that a pre­ced­ent,’ then fine, no one would be see­ing it as an ab­dic­a­tion,” says one schol­ar of the eth­ics and leg­al­ity of war. “In­stead, it came across as ‘I need top cov­er be­cause our closest al­lies ever won’t fol­low us on this one.’”

What also smacks sadly of the ap­pease­ment era of the 1930s is all the talk about “war wear­i­ness,” from Obama and oth­ers. “I know well we are weary of war,” the pres­id­ent said Sat­urday. “But we are the United States of Amer­ica, and we can­not and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Dam­as­cus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an in­ter­na­tion­al or­der and en­forced the rules that gave it mean­ing.”

Yet that in­ter­na­tion­al or­der is what is now in some danger, 74 years later. After all, it was just this kind of war wear­i­ness that cre­ated Neville Cham­ber­lain, and his for­eign policy of “pos­it­ive ap­pease­ment” as he called it, in the years after the ter­rible blood­let­ting of World War I. If one be­comes un­will­ing to strike dic­tat­ors and mass mur­der­ers, all that re­mains is to ap­pease them.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4413) }}

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×