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
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.