For the rest of this week political commentators will be analyzing President Obama’s speech on Syria tonight. Given the gravity of the issues, the speech calls for careful and critical attention to determine whether it really makes a compelling case for possibly using force against Assad’s Syria. For the moment, however, I would like to note one passage that is strange in itself and that perhaps undermines confidence in the president’s argument.
Reiterating some of what he said a week ago last Saturday, the president noted that he believed he had authority to order military strikes on his own, but that he thought it would be better to seek the support of Congress. This was especially the case, he said, in light of the experience of the recent years. Here is how he put it (I have italicized the part I find interesting and troubling):
I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.
What is he talking about?
It is surely not paranoia to detect here that the president is implying that the previous administration–that of George W. Bush–somehow sidelined the people’s representatives in decisions about the use of force, while Obama is doing the opposite. But president Bush sought and received Congressional authorization to use force in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. And Bush sought and won Congressional authorization to use force in Iraq. In the two most important uses of force in the previous decade, the people’s representatives were not sidelined. On the contrary, it was during the present decade (in the spring of 2011) that the people’s representatives were sidelined when President Obama decided to use force in Libya without seeking or getting Congressional authorization.
This is weird. Many commentators unfriendly to the president have noted his frequent recurrence to slamming his predecessor. Here he is at it again, but in a way that is not just unseemly and small but dishonest. The truth is the opposite of what he implies, and he himself is guilty of that of which he here complains.
There is more to this than the president’s need to build himself up at the expense of George W. Bush. The bigger question is this: how does one place confidence in his case for military action when he cannot even address the country honestly on this point?