"After all, it was devotion to high principle that gave us Vietnam and Iraq."
This is the last line in a New York Times piece by writer at large, Sam Tanenhaus, about the declining presidency. The piece, entitled The Hands-Tied Presidency, appears in the Times, today, September 7, 2013.
While the people of the U.S. continue to ask tough questions about both the cost and possible implications of a military strike on Syria, both Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama have framed their argument in favour of military action in high-sounding moral principals.
Is this a debate between morality and pragmatics? If it is, and Tanenhaus certainly infers that it is, history is on the side of pragmatics.
Obama, appearing at a microphone before departing St. Petersburg on Friday of this week, reminded his reporter audience, and the rest of the world, that while London was being bombed during the blitz by Germany in the Second World War, American public opinion was strongly opposed to becoming engaged in support of Great Britain, "even though it was the right thing to do" as the president put it.
Given the current state of both the culture of the United States, as well as the culture of the western world generally, high-minded principals have given way to narcissistic self-promotion for both individuals and nation states, and the pragmatics that make such pursuits the shortest and the most viscious, oh and possibly the most likely of success. No one really cares whom them step on, on their way to their millions, or if possible their billions.
National self-interest is divined by such a complex algorithm that even Bill Gates would have difficulty untangling it. And in the case of Syria, the U.S. national self-interest seems to be defined by the White House as protection from the chemical weapons of Assad falling into the hands of the thousands of terrorists currently operating in that country, apparently on the side of the "rebel forces". Another aspect of the White House argument seems to be the "line-in-the-sand" one of demonstrating that there are consequences for any leader to choose to deploy chemical weapons on his own people (or presumably on the people of his enemies).
General Dempsey uses the words, "degrade and deter" Assad's capability to use chemical weapons, in his presentation to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
However, what would be amiss for the U.S. to twist Russia's arm (really Putin's) to get an agreement to pressure Assad to sign the Treaty banning the use of chemical weapons, since Syria is one of only five countries in the world that did not sign that treaty? Make the arguments public, through all channels of public media, including a resolution to the Security Council, where Russia and China would have to declare their position, and by voting "No," they would, in effect, be giving cover for Syria's abstention from the treaty.
That process would require at least another month, during which other countries might have a different kind of change of heart, from that of the French president who came out loudly supporting the U.S. announcement of a military strike and now is pulling back from that position. The U.S., and especially the U.S. president, knows that military action will neither stop Assad from deploying chemical weapons, even if it deters him for a matter of days, weeks, or even a few months, until the furor dies down, as it inevitably will. Let's not forget that his father held tyrannical power over Syria for forty+ years by killing his enemies within the country. Clearly the acorn did not fall from the tree, in the case of the junior Assad.
Weakening the presidency further, as Obama will undoubtedly and ironically accomplish, should he fail to achieve the necessary votes for his proposal in Congress, and as he most surely will, if he does not go ahead in the face of that political failure, could and likely would leave the U.S. Presidency virtually, if not literally crippled, for future occupants of the White House.
Ceremony and substance were originally included in the founding fathers' picture of the complex system of checks and balances between the three levels of the U.S. government. Crippling the most visible, and the most potentially unifying, and the most potentially inspiring of the three branches, will so emasculate the office that it will devolve into little more than the equivalent of the Canadian Governor General, who cuts ribbons, and pins medals on some deserving Canadians after some committee names those recipients. Oh, by the way, he also frequently represents the Queen and Canada at funerals of foreign dignitaries the Prime Minister does not think worthy of his presence.
Is that the kind of White House Obama seeks to leave as his legacy?
Nor is this man not so bred as to have one of the more significant potentials to enhance the reputation of the country and the office to which he was historically elected. Is his courage, vision and patience up to the current task of avoiding military action in favour of so many historic moves, like having the U.S. sign as a signatory to the International Criminal Court where Assad could be prosecuted with as much if not more impact than a few mis-guided missiles will have, as to pressure Assad to sign the treaty banning the use of chemical weapons....now that would be historic...and would leave an Obama legacy worthy of the man!