Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s expanded use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 has prompted the most critical foreign policy decision of Barack Obama’s presidency. It has produced divergent reactions among members of Congress, splitting both Democrats and Republicans, and has offered ample opportunity for chronic Monday morning quarterbacks to provide their I-told-you-so solutions.
When reports surfaced that the president was prepared to order a military strike designed to punish Syria for its genocide, we heard loud calls insisting that such action not be taken without first having a congressional vote. It’s particularly noteworthy that some ideologues, including this district’s Tom McClintock, stand out for opposing such an action even when their demands for votes have been heeded, and for deliberately avoiding an intelligence briefing offered to all members of Congress.
Late last week, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama made the case for why action is necessary to deter Assad from using weapons of mass destruction: Assad’s escalated chemical weapons use, confirmed by published graphic visible evidence and reports by onsite medical personnel, killed more than 1,000 people including hundreds of children. Said Obama, “It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons … It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm … This menace must be confronted.”
Obama’s message outlining this challenge to global civility carries echoes of the lesson the world learned at Munich in 1938 when Britain and France bowed to Adolf Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia be dismembered. That decisive moment convinced the Nazi dictator that the West lacked resolve to confront willful international criminal activity. The historic appeasement ultimately led to World War II. Since then, the core of American foreign policy has been deterrence.
McClintock’s statements, expressed both on his website and in interviews on Fox News, undermine our credibility. They demonstrate that his real objective is to score familiar anti-Obama points, not to seriously address these national security threats. His Aug. 27 website statement said “If there are facts that compel us to take such a course, let those facts be laid before Congress and let Congress fulfill its rightful constitutional role on the most momentous decision any government can make.” Days later, Obama sought a Congressional debate and vote. Yet, McClintock had already confirmed to Fox host Stuart Varney that he would vote “no” on military authorization anyway — without waiting for an administration briefing. “The president talked himself into a rhetorical box by talking about red lines,” McClintock added. “He’s now trying to save face and he’s doing so in an utterly irresponsible manner.”
But it is McClintock who acts irresponsibly. As a member of Congress, which he affirms has the sole prerogative of deciding whether to authorize military means, he has a duty to attend security briefings, listen to the evidence, and cast votes based on it, not on his political whims. He should have pressured the House leadership to call members back to Washington immediately to have an early vote; at least he should have returned promptly — as did more than 100 other members — in order to participate in this vital national security discussion. On Sunday, the White House held a classified briefing on Syria open to all lawmakers. Eighty members from both parties attended, according to the Huffington Post. His absence defines his abandonment of that role. During his Fox interview last Thursday, McClintock said nothing about the moral responsibility to deter future uses and deployment of chemical weapons.
“Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community,” said the president on Saturday. “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”
On Sunday Kerry told Fox News host Chris Wallace “(It’s) in the hands of … Congress …The president wants to stand up and make certain that we uphold the international norm, that we do not grant impunity to a ruthless dictator to gas his own people.”
What is McClintock’s answer to the president’s questions — without spin? His absence from Washington is a disgrace.
— Michael Zucker is a resident of South Lake Tahoe and a stockbroker with Regal Securities. The views expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent those of Regal.