Blurred lines: Obama, Congress and chemical weapons
By Tom Baxter
Over the weekend, President Obama did exactly what, in theory, he’s supposed to do. This action was branded almost immediately by friend and foe alike as the biggest blunder of his presidency.
Some of Obama’s own advisors were said to be taken aback when he told them he’d decided to put the question of whether to take military action against Syria to a vote by Congress.
“This erratic conduct leaves U.S. foreign policy in a shambles,” Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative whose resistance to congressional interference stretches back to the Iran-Contra affair, fumed in a Politico op-ed. “This could be the biggest miscalculation of of his presidency,” a senior House Democrat said.
What Obama had done to cause such an uproar from all sides was to follow to the letter the advice of Sarah Palin, who called on him to seek congressional approval in a Facebook post the night before he announced he would do so.
He went one step further than House Speaker John Boehner, who has pressed for the White House to involve Congress in U.S. Middle East policy without asking for the responsibility of a vote.
In football terms, this used to be called a quick kick. It could turn out to be as big a foreign policy miscalculation as many think it is. It could affect Obama’s, and the nation’s, prestige, as some of his allies worry it will. Still, there is something to be said for reminding Congress, from time to time, that it might actually be held accountable for something.
All the hand-wringing over how much this might affect the president’s domestic agenda in his second term assumes that any part of that agenda had much of a chance in an atmosphere in which Republicans see so little upside in working with the administration on anything. Having this debate at this time at least changes the chemistry in Washington, and forces both sides to talk with each other about as sobering an issue as there could be for politicians to talk about.
The history of chemical weapons is a tangled, sordid mess. Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who supervised the development of chlorine gas weapons for the German military in World War I, later fled the country in 1933 — the Nazis were willing to overlook his being Jewish, but Haber couldn’t. The Germans were rightly held accountable for introducing chemical weapons, but both sides used them: Harry Truman, as a young artillery captain, fired poison-gas shells at the Germans.
The horror evoked by the use of poison gas in World War I was so great that its use was generally (though not universally) avoided on the battlefields of World War II, even as the Germans were using gas to murder millions of noncombatants. But this restraint was balanced on a hair trigger.
In “The Second World War,” Antony Beevor tells the little-known story of the SS John Harvey, a Liberty ship which was carrying a load of mustard gas bombs, to be held in reserve in the event the Germans used chemical weapons. It was sunk in a German attack on the Italian port of Bari in 1943, in a horrific incident in which the release of the gas contributed to the deaths of more than a thousand.
So the “red line” drawn by Obama over the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria against its own citizens has never been so clear or straight. Nevertheless, there is a line, about which there’s broad international agreement. It’s how to hold it that’s the hard part.
There’s been a lot of harrumphing already to the effect that Obama should be presenting Congress with a carefully thought-out strategy for handling the chaos in Syria. But war isn’t about tidy choices, and with harder choices looming with Iran’s nuclear weapons development, this may be an opportune time to test whether the administration and Congress can agree on anything.
The legislative body which to this point has spoken loudest is the British Parliament, which pushed Obama to seek congressional approval when it voted against intervention in Syria last week.
Ironically, France, which has ties with Syria through its 20th Century occupation of the country, is the only country standing with the U.S. in support of a response to the chemical weapons attacks. It’s a complicated world, though some want to see it in simple terms.