Back on Friday, I asked if Barack Obama was going to follow Britain's lead by allowing Congress to vote on whether or not the US should attack Syria. Up until that point, all signs pointed toward the President making a unilateral decision without any Congressional input. But just when it seemed like Obama was going to push the proverbial button, he blinked and said he would allow Congress to weigh in on the matter. To say the least, it is something of a perplexing about-face.
Dave Lindorff writes that overall opposition by the American public -- not simply my blog post on the matter -- caused Obama to have second thoughts.
Behind these flowery words is a hard reality: the president of the United States has been compelled to back down. Public opposition in the US and abroad to yet another war of choice launched against another middle eastern nation that poses no threat to this country has brought the American war machine, at least for the moment, to a screeching halt. In Europe and elsewhere, public pressure has forced leaders to back away from their initial reflexive support for a US strike on Syria. And according to Charles Blow of the New York Times, 50% of Americans oppose any US military action against Syria, with only 28% saying that an attack on Syria would be in America’s interest. Blow says this is the highest level of public opposition to war in three decades of US warmaking.
It is a time for celebrating the power of the people, but it is not a time for resting. The lobbying of members of Congress by the administration and the various interests that are pushing for war will be intense over the coming week or so. Public pressure on members of Congress to oppose any attack will have to be even more relentless and intense.
This madness can be stopped. We can see that now. But it can only be stopped if we keep the pressure on every member of Congress.
As much as I would like to pat ourselves on the back, I am still left with the question: Why did public opinion impact this singular issue?
Back during the health care debate, overwhelming majorities favored some type of universal health care and yet Obama pulled the plug on the watered down Public Option. Large numbers of Americans opposed almost all of the corporate bailouts as well as the "settlement" with mortgage financiers in regards to the illegal foreclosure of homes. In these cases, widespread public opposition didn't register at all with the president and his advisers.
So, why did public opposition -- an opposition that did not include massive protests and demonstrations -- supposedly turn the tide in this case?
Not unexpectedly, the astute Glenn Greenwald provides the answer.
It's a potent sign of how low the American political bar is set that gratitude is expressed because a US president says he will ask Congress to vote before he starts bombing another country that is not attacking or threatening the US. That the US will not become involved in foreign wars of choice without the consent of the American people through their representatives Congress is a central mandate of the US Constitution, not some enlightened, progressive innovation of the 21st century. George Bush, of course, sought Congressional approval for the war in Iraq (though he did so only once it was clear that Congress would grant it: I vividly remember watching then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden practically begging the Bush White House to "allow" Congress to vote on the attack while promising in advance that they would approve for it).
But what makes the celebratory reaction to yesterday's announcement particularly odd is that the Congressional vote which Obama said he would seek appears, in his mind, to have no binding force at all. There is no reason to believe that a Congressional rejection of the war's authorization would constrain Obama in any way, other than perhaps politically. To the contrary, there is substantial evidence for the proposition that the White House sees the vote as purely advisory, i.e., meaningless.
Recall how - in one of most overlooked bad acts of the Obama administration - the House of Representatives actually voted, overwhelmingly, against authorizing the US war in Libya, and yet Obama simply ignored the vote and proceeded to prosecute the war anyway (just as Clinton did when the House rejected the authorization he wanted to bomb Kosovo, though, at least there, Congress later voted to allocate funds for the bombing campaign). Why would the White House view the President's power to wage war in Libya as unconstrainable by Congress, yet view his power to wage war in Syria as dependent upon Congressional authorization?
More to the point, his aides are making clear that Obama does not view the vote as binding, as Time reports:
To make matters more complicated, Obama's aides made clear that the President's search for affirmation from Congress would not be binding. He might still attack Syria even if Congress issues a rejection.It's certainly preferable to have the president seek Congressional approval than not seek it before involving the US in yet another Middle East war of choice, but that's only true if the vote is deemed to be something more than an empty, symbolic ritual. To declare ahead of time that the debate the President has invited and the Congressional vote he sought are nothing more than non-binding gestures - they will matter only if the outcome is what the President wants it to be - is to display a fairly strong contempt for both democracy and the Constitution.