The Red, White, And Blue Line

We are the United States of America. We cannot and must not turn a blind eye toward what happened in Damascus.

Barack Obama, August 31, 2013

President Obama has called the bluff of a pusillanimous Congress. For a week now, members of the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle, have argued that the President must seek congressional authorization for any action directed toward Syria. I have heard Democrats and Republicans declare before the American people that Congress should finally determine whether the United States takes any punitive action against the Assad regime, and as I wrote a few days ago, I agree with them, saying that Congress “should shoulder much of the responsibility for attacking Syria. This isn’t Libya. The unknowns are much greater and more extensive.”

But in the mean time, Congress has remained on vacation. Congressional leadership, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid, have made no move to call Congress back to Washington to debate this matter. That, my friends, is why whoever occupies the White House, whether it is occupied by a Democrat or a Republican, has amassed so much power. It’s easy for members of Congress to spout their objections or affirmations on television or on their websites, but it’s much harder to cast a vote and go on the record—which history will examine and critique— for posterity.

The President put an end to that congressional cowardice today. Showing the proper respect for our democratic values, he claimed he had the authority to act against Syria, he said he decided that we should act against Syria, but unequivocally he put the burden of such an action on “the American people’s representatives in Congress”:

Over the last several days, we’ve heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard.  I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they’ve agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session. 

In other words, the so-called “red line” he has previously drawn in terms of international norms against the use of chemical weapons, has now become the red, white, and blue line. As the lack of international cooperation on this matter has made clear, as we observe governments run away from enforcing those norms, if the burden of enforcing any principle against the use of chemical warfare is to be shouldered, it will be shouldered by the American people.

As amazing as the President’s announcement was today, I want to say something about what has been happening, and is now happening on steroids, among people I have called the “establishment extremists” on the right. It makes one sick, even though all of it was quite predictable.

I was watching Fox “News” both before and after the President’s remarks today. If there was ever any tiny doubt remaining that the right-wing network is, during its so-called “straight” news programming, nothing but a propaganda machine for reactionaries, today erased all doubt.

I watched Oliver North tell us how confident he was that Obama, because he “shot off his mouth” about a red line, would initiate an attack on Sunday night. He told us he visited the Pentagon, had contacts in the place, and there was little confidence among military leaders that what Obama was certainly going to do would work.

Now, leaving aside how wrong North was, and leaving aside the utter right-wing nonsense about Obama’s “red line” remarks—which were appropriate and if he had not said them would have caused right-wingers like North to attack him for not doing so—one has to wonder why the disgraced Oliver North is allowed to even piss in a Pentagon potty let alone confer with anyone of consequence there.

One has to also wonder why the President doesn’t issue a directive to everyone at the Pentagon that would go something like this: “If I find out any one of you have blabbed to people like Oliver North even a jot or tittle about our military planning, you will quickly find yourself in command of a plastic boat fleet in Rush Limbaugh’s massive bathtub. Got it?”

Before North finished his segment on Fox, he managed to suggest the President read one of his books, conveniently, and unbelievably, holding a copy of it up before the camera. Disgusting, but then the conservative media complex is at work 24-7 and Fox is where the gullible go to graze.

After the President’s remarks, on came the big guns on Fox, which included Commander Charles Krauthammer, who not only knows more than Barack Obama about being a commander-in-chief, he knows more than Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, well, more than God, as Krauthammer’s pronouncements have the chiseled-in-stone certainty of divine commandments.krauthammer on syria

Krauthammer’s rhetorical assault on President Obama was so comprehensive, so vile, that I thought his head was going to explode while delivering it. He pulled out every negative description at his mental command to criticize the President. It “was amateur hour, ” he said. He announced that, “the President flinched.” He said Obama looks like a president “who boxed himself into a corner and is looking for a way out.” Commander Krauthammer, as with all warmongering right-wing pundits and politicians, demands  “urgency,” saying the President lacked it, and that after the latest chemical attack, he should have “immediately called in the Congress” and had the whole thing done “in three days.” And, yes, he brought out from the mothballs the “d” word: “dithering.” 

Then, amazingly, he said this:

We are, I think, beyond even the military strategics of this. I would have opposed a limited strike because I think it’s not what you want to do. You want to do a strike that’s going to affect the battle that’s happening in Syria today and tilt it against the government. But at this point, what’s at stake is the word of the United States and that overrides everything. 

In other words, says Commander Krauthammer, even though he is all-in for a military response that would give the rebels, whoever the bleep they are, the upper hand, he would now, just for the show of it, be in favor of a limited strike because “the word of the United States,” even if it comes from an obviously incompetent boob like Barack Obama, “overrides everything.” That’s scary shit right there.

But Krauthammer, who is widely regarded as the most profound right-wing thinker since the extinction of Neanderthals, wasn’t finished. He talked about how Obama’s decision would bring “jubilation” to the Syrian government, the Russians, and the Iranians, but most important, he said,

…imagine the demoralization, not just among the rebels, who are looking up to the sky and looking for assistance, but among all the states in the region who live on the word of the United States, on Jordan, on the Saudis, on the Kuwaitis, the Omanis, the Yemenites, even Israel and Egypt to a large extent. And they hear a president who has no idea what he’s doing and speaks about this in a leisurely way, will take off in a couple of days, end up in Sweden and in Moscow, when all of this is happening.

What the President ought to do… [is] bring in the members of Congress, you have a debate for two days and you have a resolution. You can’t leave the region hanging. It looks absolutely as if the United States has chickened out. And that’s the work of the President because he did this. And even though I think a limited attack is not the right thing to do, at this point he has to do something or we will have reached the lowest ebb of American influence in the region since 1970.

There you have it. All rolled into one stunning declaration. This is how the right, the militant right, the right that brought us the Iraq war, looks at the modern world, looks at how American power ought to be demonstrated to both a dependent and defiant world.

Never mind that most of the nations that Krauthammer names are not clamoring, at least publicly, for U.S. intervention in Syria. And some, like Turkey for instance, whom Krauthammer did not mention, are actually pushing for the U.S. to do more than initiate a limited, punitive attack on Syria. They want, like Krauthammer himself, the Americans to do enough damage to give the Syrian opposition, many of them American-haters, a decisive advantage. Such recklessness, such daredevilish thinking, is what brought us, via the Iraq war, a more powerful and more dangerous Iran.

In any case, what Krauthammer’s response shows—and he was only one among many expressing such views on Fox today—was not just the usual Obama-hating hysteria that has infected right-wing politics and punditry, and not only reveals the hasty, foolhardy thinking on the establishment-extremist right regarding the use of American power around the world, but it demonstrates a fundamental problem some conservatives have always had with democracy: they don’t trust the people.

That is why there is an ongoing Republican assault on voting rights and that is why some conservatives (with notable exceptions like anti-establishment extremists Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) are having so much trouble digesting the fact that our President of the United States, a Democrat they accuse of being a Constitution-hating lawbreaker, has decided to honor the Constitution, which says in Article 1, Section 8:

Congress shall have power to…declare War.

Thus, because the American people, through their representatives in Congress, will now decide if any action will be taken against the Syrian government for its unconscionable use of chemical weapons on innocents, including children, I will give the President the last word below, at least for now, on this issue. As Americans, we should get to decide just what kind of country we will be, what principles we are prepared to defend and, when necessary, to enforce with our military might. And anyone who cares about America’s role in the world, about our place in yet-to-be-written world history, should read the following words carefully, and then diligently pay attention to the debate that will soon begin in, as Mr. Obama said today, “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy”:

And finally, let me say this to the American people:  I know well that we are weary of war.  We’ve ended one war in Iraq.  We’re ending another in Afghanistan.  And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military.  In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve.  And that’s why we’re not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else’s war. 

Instead, we’ll continue to support the Syrian people through our pressure on the Assad regime, our commitment to the opposition, our care for the displaced, and our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people.

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.  And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations.  We aren’t perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities.

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4 Comments

  1. Very well said, Duane. All I can think to add is this comment which I made on the matter a couple of hours ago elsewhere:

    It has been 68 years since Hiroshima/Nagasaki and no nuclear weapon has since been used to war. This is tenuous but it nevertheless holds. It is evidence that a limit to violence may be possible, and if so, why limit that line to nuclear weapons only? Is not the poison-gassing of 400 children equally abhorrent?

    Ironically, the only absolutes in this munitions chess game are religious. The Sunni’s and the Shiites hate one another and detest other religions so much that they would inflict the sufferings of hell to win their way. We have the power to punish them for behaving that way, and the possibility exists that it would have a deterrent effect.

    Therefore, the question now before the Congress of the United States, placed there properly in my opinion, is whether we have the will to sacrifice a present few for the sake of principle and the possible future of many. If Congress declines to approve Obama’s recommendation, how many in the future will reflect on the additional dead, the orphaned, the disfigured and the homeless, and curse the 2013 Congress for failing to try?

    The GOP controlled House demanded to be consulted, now we will see what kind of leadership resides there. IMHO.

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    • Jim,

      A very thoughtful response, Jim.

      I am glad you mentioned the “absolutes” in this mess. Other than the religious zealots you mention, I would submit that there are some absolutists right here in the United States. I know because I have spent this Sunday morning listening to them on television, as many are making the absolutist claim that this is all Obama’s fault. He shouldn’t have said this or he should have said that. He should have reacted sooner or he shouldn’t have reacted at all. He should have a comprehensive regional strategy or a comprehensive regional strategy is impossible to have so he should just let things be over there. He should have brought this to Congress sooner or he shouldn’t have brought this to Congress at all. Bottom line: these pundits and politicians are absolutely sure that this is President Obama’s fault.

      I will, I hope, have time later today to put together a couple of things I saw this morning that amazed me. But aside from those things, this truly has been a spectacle, since President Obama decided to honor the concept of democracy and representative government. Some people, especially some of those who worship the Founders and their constitutional product, don’t really believe all that much in our form of government. It’s really stunning.

      Duane

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  2. Anonymous

     /  September 1, 2013

    Now the decision lies with our astute congress people such as our own Billy Long. I certainly don’t have the answer but I am hoping heartfully for a wise decision with the military input necessary. I read what the Republican elected folks said yesterday about their right to make the decision and I shivered. With trepidation, not cold. Very well written, EC.

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  3. ansonburlingame

     /  September 2, 2013

    Now I offer my “lengthy” response to the above. Actually you don’t have to read it here and the response is an attempt, yesterday, for me to get an “apolitical” oar into these very troubled and now political waters.

    I posted three blogs, yesterday, some 2000 words, all told in an attempt to “analyize” apolitically, the long term, medium term and short term chances of doing much at all. The latter is striclty a military focus on what we can achieve using military force in Syria, right now. Not much is my military opinion on that matter, the last blog.

    Since WWII we have lost several limited wars, We only won two of them, First Gulf War and Grenada. In both cases the Powell Doctrine worked well. In all other cases we lost such limited wars killing hundreds of thousand, even millions of people in doing so, not to mention the financial costs of such efforts.

    For only the second time since WWII a President has gone to Congress for approval to conduct a limited engagement. I agree that it is the correct thing for President Obama to do today for sure. We the people now should engage in a rigorous debate over National Security issues, fundamental ones, such that we have not held in America for a long time.

    This debate, now upon our country should NOT hinge on partisan politics. But Duane has immediately gone paritsan for sure, above, which of course is his intent, advocate progressive politics. I went to great effort to NOT be partisan, GOP vs Dems or even conservative vs. progressive in all three blogs posted yesterday. I spoke of only American actions, American values and one blog on the military capacity to achieve them in Syria today.

    No way can or should I attempt to summarize those three blogs, herein or elsewhere. Combined they voice ideas which are important, fundamental to American prosperity if you will, or at least American defense in broad terms. It was difficult to do so even in three blogs, much less a summary sound bite of the three blogs.

    I will do my absolute best to avoid partisan rancor in THIS debate, what to do in Syria today and the long term implications, regardless of what is done, in Syria, today. As well I hope to not in any way disparage President Obama, personally, in his current efforts to defend America, or any of you in comments on this blog as well.

    Like it or not we are now very much confronted with VITAL Ameican interests, long term interests that must be sustainable over time. We the people need such discussions and now is the time to do so in my view.

    I THINK what I read Duane offering for now is a polemical critique of lame GOP arguments against President Obama, or lame in his view at least. As well I suspect that Duane and most of you will call for full support of President Obama’s proposals now on the part of Congress.

    I on the other hand think much more must be said and written on that matter and now is the time to do so, with really long term issues being laid on the table as well, issues we have dodged for a long time in the post WWII era. We MUST have a “strong” Executive in a dangerous world. But as well there must be balance between that Executive, Congress and we the peoplem regardless of the Party in power in the White House.

    As well as a nation we have been aruging about “War Powers” since the early 1970’s as well. MIght it be possible to reach a united consensus over exactly who must have such “Powers” and how they can effectively be used, regardless of the Party in power in the White House, anytime?

    Finally, history tells me at least that when “war powers” are NOT used in a UNITED country, well we then lose every war so started, limited or otherwise.

    Almost everytime America has put “boots on the ground” since WWII, the “boots” have done a superb job, as “boots”. Yet we have lost numberous wars. WHY is that? Easy to see from my perspective, as a former “boot”. The country has failed, miserably to UNITE in such efforts.

    Any war is “hell”, limited or otherwise. If we cannot join hands as a nation WHEN we engage in war, limited or otherwise, then why bother in the first place. Too many people get killed, unnecessarily when we attempt to “go to hell” with only “boots” and not we the people fully behind them, come “hell or high water”.

    Anson

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