Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Roll of the Dice"

Having just watched President Obama's statement on Syria, in which he both strongly made the case for his belief that the U.S. should launch punitive military strikes against the Assad regime and said he would ask for Congressional authorization to do so, I listened in amazement as the CNN commentators displayed just how poorly they know this president.

Wolf Blitzer kept repeating that this was a "roll of the dice," because by asking for Congressional authorization, Obama was taking the chance that the answer would be "no." In that case, he suggested, Obama risked looking weak.

In short, Blitzer et al simply could not seem to fathom that Obama may have been thinking of this decision in any terms other than the crassly political. It never seems to have occurred to them that he may believe that, however much he thinks that this is the right course of action, he had a responsibility to provide the time for the people's representatives to weigh in before acting. He may have actually believed a Congressional vote was the right and proper thing to do even if the Congress did not approve a military strike.

I've studied American political history and foreign policy long enough to know that presidents are never unaware of or unconcerned with the political ramifications of their military decisions. But that is not the same thing as saying that politics always trumps other considerations.

Over the last 30 to 40 years, we Americans have become so accustomed to presidents justifying the assertion of unilateral power to do nearly anything around the world by referring to their powers as "commander-in-chief" that a president refraining from doing so seems inexplicable, an irrational "roll of the dice."

President Obama made clear that he believes a strike is justified, even required, in this instance. But he did not therefore conclude that he had a unilateral right to do it. Perhaps if Congress refuses to grant the authority, he will act anyway. My guess is that he will not. My belief is that he was saying something that far too few Americans--in the media, and especially in Congress--seem to understand: process matters.

However important he thinks it is for the United States to make a statement that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, he does not think it more important than that basic principle. In our political life, we have accepted the corrosive idea that the only thing that matters is getting our way, process be damned.

The American system of government, if it is to work again, requires that all Americans recommit to the idea that the most important thing is not that we get our way by hook or by crook, but that we all agree to respect, abide by, and not abuse the process. If we have an election and our candidates and ideas lose, we do not then seek to subvert the result, or hold the government hostage in order to undo the results of that election.

If our ideas are rejected by the majority, we have every right to continue to believe them and advocate for them. But when we connive to impose them on others, when we run roughshod over the process in the name of achieving our desired result, we undermine the only thing that can ever make the system work.

In his deference to Congress today, President Obama has shown respect for process. Now it is up to Congress to show similar respect, have a dignified and intelligent debate, and face the responsibility of making its decision. If it does, regardless of the result, our system of government will be the stronger for it.

And with any luck, some members of Congress might even get in the habit of putting process over results. We can only hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment