President Obama's decision to seek Congressional approval for the Syrian strike he so badly wants to make has turned this crisis into a turning point in American history. Today's newspaper stories both confirm much of what I said on Friday, and also suggest that the era of American intervention might be about to come to an end.
Today's stories, to begin with, confirm that Obama holds to the Bush doctrine just as firmly as Eisenhower held to the Truman doctrine. The United States, he believes, has a right to punish any nation that uses "weapons of mass destruction," which in this case include chemical weapons. Ten years ago a number of good articles appeared suggesting that it did not make much sense to lump chemical and biological weapons together with nuclear ones, but that insight seems to have been forgotten. But that is not all. The White House has made clear that the President wants the Congressional resolution in part to lay the foundation for later action against Iran--the action the President has consistently threatened to try to take out its nuclear program. This confirms that the non-proliferation regime set up by the GI generation by treaty back in the late 1960s has definitely been replaced by the doctrine that the United States will decide who can (Israel) and who can't (Iran) develop nuclear weapons. To be fair, Israel initially developed its weapons in defiance of the United States, but we have never made a public move to suggest that they should give them up as part of a nuclear-free Middle East, which is the obvious alternative strategy to military action against Iran. The Xer President (Obama) has followed the lead of his Boomer President and our unilateral non-proliferation regime remains in force.
The second big lesson of the current crisis, as I noted yesterday, is that the "Washington rules" identified by Andrew Bacevich remain in force. Among what remains of the foreign policy establishment, including Lindsay Graham and John McCain among the Republicans and Susan Rice, John Kerry and Samantha Power among the Democrats, American military power remains the preferred solution to any international problem, even if they define those problems differently. The Republicans still tend to favor regime change, despite the disastrous consequences it has had in Iraq and now in Egypt. The Democrats maintain the fantasy, for which Power won several book prizes, that a little resolute action by the US will stop crimes against humanity. Looking at a shot of the NSC meeting that took place in the White House this morning it struck me that there wasn't anyone around the table with any really detailed knowledge of Syria. Some of them have people working for them who have such knowledge, but I doubt that they are having much input into these decisions.
But the third lesson will emerge during the next two weeks. I strongly suspect that it will be an historic one: that the American people, as represented in Congress, have abandoned Washington rules and will not support the intervention. Here another historical parallel arises: the Congress's mistrust of the Executive in the wake of the Civil War, during which Lincoln had been vilified as a dictator. I expect the resolution to fail in the House because the Republican majority will not vote to allow Barack Obama, whom they see similarly, to do anything. Some skeptical Democrats will join them. The picture in the Senate is more complicated but not necessarily more reassuring. Lindsay Graham and John McCain have already said that they will oppose the resolution because it does not go far enough--it only wants to inflict a largely symbolic punishment upon Assad, rather than overthrow his regime, thus opening the way to another bloody civil war and a huge round of ethnic cleansing which, they seem to think, will somehow benefit the United States of America. There the Democrats will face a very difficult decision. But if the House votes action down the Senate vote will not matter.
The White House still maintains, as Lyndon Johnson did after the Tonkin Gulf resolution, that it does not need Congressional authorization to act. Given that the Syrian government is already crowing in triumph, it will be tempted to do so to "restore American credibility" even if it loses the vote, but that would probably mean impeachment by the House. If the House blocks action it won't be doing so out of superior insight into foreign policy, but only because it is so determined to destroy the authority of the federal government in general and Barack Obama in particular. Still, it will mean that the consensus on "Washington rules" has now come to an end at last.
That could have been a good thing, but I don't see how, in the current context, it will be. As I made clear yesterday I do not support air strikes to punish Syria, an essentially symbolic act which will kill innocent people and which won't stop Assad from winning his civil war. We need a real vision and strategy to try to help bring civil peace to the Middle East. In another depressing aspect of the current situation, it is clear that the Israeli government welcomes the chaos in neighboring Arab states and will be more than happy to see it continue, and the Israeli public is probably the only public in the world, as Ha'aretz points out today, that supports US action against Syria. The left-wing Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy sees the situation very much as I do. We are still running on the vision laid down by George W. Bush and his neoconservative staffers: the end of existing Arab governments must be a good thing. But clearly, an entirely different kind of action, one focused on identifying new rules and values under which the peoples of the region can live, is called for. No one in the United States is trying to supply it. American action would not help the situation in Syria, but American retreat and division will not help either the US or the world either.