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Tom Baxter

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.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


1 Comment

  1. wavettore September 2, 2013 5:46 pm

    There is no doubt that these chemical attacks were carried out by the opposition rebels guided by Israeli, UK and US secret services. Like there is no doubt that Obama was pushed over and over to fight this war and finally fell into the trap of the Zionists. But this uncomfortable position could offer the perfect timing for Obama to turn the boat around and change the American foreign policy. The same hidden hand that carried out 9/11 and supplied the false evidence before the Iraq war is now responsible for these chemical attacks to escalate the Conflict. Instead of an aimless attack in Syria, Obama should put all his efforts to first find those responsible for these chemical attacks and then go after their sponsors. Then he would find out that CIA and other secret State agencies are acting independently from the US president and under the umbrella of an Anglo-Judaic group with an agenda aiming at a War of Religion meaning World War 3.
    A group of Zionists with George Bush still today at the head of secret services in the US, UK and Israel, is plotting what now would seem unthinkable.
    A new event of great magnitude will expand everywhere the conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians.
    The next World War of Religion is already a done deal behind the backs of all people which will be forced to fight for their own Countries in their obligation as citizens. This is to bring chaos and anarchy in all places and to build in the end the most sinister dictatorship, a death machine, the New World Order.
    The Deception supported by the media is the Zionists main weapon and there is a risk that most people will realize what is happening only when it will be too late and there will be no alternatives.
    From here it is the need to now lay the foundations for one alternative Front to oppose this detailed Zionist Plan which is founded upon the Biblical concept of one “chosen people” and that justifies any mean based on its Belief that Equality does not exist.
    The platform of this Front must outline for the future one clear Direction to present to the people as an alternative to the pyramidal system in which we live. It must also solve the Human conflict at its root where is buried the dilemma between Individualism and Equality. For this, it will take a new form of government called Commutalism.
    Although, even before a new form of government a new Humankind will need one new Awareness. Individualism and Equality have new meanings in light of a scientific discovery that now binds one new Science with Religion.
    The link that was missing between those two is Wavevolution.


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