George F. Will / A constitutional moment

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

In exile in 1940, Charles de Gaulle decided "it was up to me to take responsibility for France." No U.S. president should assume he is, as de Gaulle almost mystically did, the nation, or is solely responsible for it. Remember this tonight when Barack Obama defends his choice to attack Syria.

U.S. power and security are somewhat dependent on a president's stature, which should not be diminished unnecessarily. Neither, however, should America's well-being be equated with a president's policy preferences or political health.

George Orwell, who said insincerity is the enemy of clear language, would understand why our government talks of "quantitative easing" rather than printing money, and uses "enhanced interrogation" and "extraordinary rendition" rather than more concrete denotations. The debate about Syria has featured a peculiar phrase, "the vetted opposition."

Used by pro-interventionists, it implies that most anti-Assad fighters have been investigated enough to dispel doubts about them as appropriate beneficiaries of U.S. actions. But Sen. John McCain's breezy assurance ("I have met them") is insufficient.

Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons is only his most recent, and he is not the first to have used such weapons in war since the 1925 Geneva Protocol proscribing them. But because attacking Syria is said to be necessary to reinforce the 1925 "norm," it matters that the norm has been violated before. In the 1960s, Egypt used chemical weapons against Yemen. Saddam Hussein used them against disobedient Iraqis and in the 1980-1988 war with Iran.

Shane Harris and Matthew Aid just wrote in Foreign Policy that in 1988 "the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent."

U.S. officials denied acquiescing in such attacks because Iraq never announced them. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, a military attache in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, was quoted as saying, "The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew."

The argument for attacking Syria to strengthen a "norm" may be weaker than the argument for Congress halting the attack to strengthen constitutional balance. The outcome of the vote on attacking Syria may be less important than the fact of the vote. Through the physics of our Madisonian politics -- one institution's action producing another's reaction -- the nation has reached a constitutional moment.

Every policy choice occurs in a context conditioned by other choices. Barack Obama's Syrian choice comes after multiple executive excesses that have provoked Congress to react against its marginalization, a product of its supine passivity regarding Mr. Obama's unilateral lawmaking.

It is unfortunate that a foreign policy decision has catalyzed congressional resistance to presidential aggrandizement on many fronts. But no congressional vote about Syria can damage the presidency as much as Mr. Obama has done by overreaching, and by sophistical rhetoric that refutes his appeals for unconditional trust. The shriveling of his presidency probably became irreversible when laughter greeted his sophomoric claim that not he but "the world" drew a red line regarding chemical weapons.

After incessant calls for "bipartisanship" to supplant "obstructionism," there has emerged a broad bipartisan coalition to obstruct his Syrian policy. His policy is doomed without many Democratic senators swallowing their pride, disregarding past convictions and becoming presidential poodles. Such canine obedience will express obedience to progressivism's unchanging essence -- exaltation of executive discretion and disparagement of the separation of powers. That is, implacable impatience with Madison's constitutional architecture.

Barack Obama hardly has Charles de Gaulle's kind of mystical identification of himself with his nation, or de Gaulle's desperate reason for such a conflation. However, Mr. Obama's recent references to "my military" have a French antecedent in Louis XIV's l'etat c'est moi. This president has inadvertently made the case for strengthening the presidency by pruning the office's pretensions.

opinion_commentary

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (georgewill@washpost.com).


Advertisement

Latest in Op Ed Columns

Where the GOP gets it right
about 5 hours ago
Sugar’s getting a bad rap
about 5 hours ago
Great news! The end is nigh!
about 5 hours ago
Game of drones
1 day ago
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here