Generally, I find I agree with Walter Russell Mead. In this case, I do not. Mr. Mead:
It is precisely the President’s credibility as a spokesman for the “international community” (whatever that is) and for US foreign policy that is glaringly and horribly on the line. An effective leader would have consulted with key people in Congress and made sure of his backing before making explicit threats of force. Now the President is twisting lonesomely in the wind, and the question is whether Congress will ride to the rescue. If it doesn’t, it will be the closest thing the American system has to a parliamentary vote of “no confidence”, where Congress explicitly declares to the world that the President of the United States does not speak for the country.
The clear implication of not issuing a “vote of no confidence” is a vote of confidence. Should Congress have confidence Mr. Obama will not waste a vote of confidence? Mr. Obama’s confidence in, and respect for, Congress has been demonstrated by his insistence that the vote is actually unnecessary, and that he feels free to ignore it. Given that, he can fix his own problem. Mr. Mead acknowledges (see below) that President Clinton did just that, but does not explain why president Obama cannot.
Congressional approval of the President’s fecklessness will neither improve his credibility nor enhance the reputation of Congress. If Congress is railroaded into supporting the president based on a mistake he refuses to acknowledge, what message does that send?
Bombs falling on Syria will only rescue the president’s credibility if they fall to some purpose, some strategic objective. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can’t name one. Congress should support military intervention that has no strategic point solely because not doing so would embarrass the president? That’s the message? How does that not embarrass the United States?
Even if you accept “he’s incompetent, but he’s OUR incompetent” as the best message we can send under the circumstances, the credibility enhancement will disappear when Obama next goes off teleprompter. What about the next time he fails to make “sure of his backing before making explicit threats of force?” What if he draws a red-line on Russian warships in proximity to Syria?
That would be very dangerous. Foreigners will no longer know when and whether to take anything this President says as representing American policy rather than his own editorial opinions. We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.
This argument is logical only if you assume foreigners now know whether to take anything the president says seriously. Even if you are credulous enough to accept that, it only supports voting for Obama’s Syria resolution if giving free rein to his future off the cuff remarks is less dangerous than the alternative.
If Congress declines to support what even proponents of a Syria strike must agree is a massively screwed up policy, then the President will face another choice. He can do a “Clinton” (President Clinton bombed Serbia in the teeth of congressional disapproval), or he can fold like a cheap suit. If he chooses the latter course, Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” stunt at the 2012 GOP convention will look eerily prophetic.
Because of the president’s loose tongue and disregard for the rule of law, the choice is between the Clinton cheap suit and the emperor’s lack of clothes. It is not a choice the Congress of United States can fix on behalf of a president who cannot be trusted to execute a coherent policy. Mr. Mead does not explain how a vote to assuage the president’s narcissistic panic can restore presidential credibility. He seems to assume that Obama will learn and change. I have little hope.
“Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” stunt” is now conventional wisdom. Congress can’t change that, either.
Foreigners will no longer know when and whether to take anything this President says as representing American policy rather than his own editorial opinions. We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.
Can Barack “I didn’t draw a red-line” Obama suddenly become credible because he wins a vote he says he doesn’t need and might reject? Is the United States suddenly a credible ally because Congress shows it will support presidential incompetence?
Or is such a vote more likely to reduce our allies confidence and increase the danger of a wider conflagration?