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 »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×