Can Foreign Policy Come Back to the People?

Obama and Rand Paul define the edges of the politics of Syria. But do the politics matter?


On Tuesday night President Obama decided to act like an elected leader in a democratic republic rather than just a blustering "commander-in-chief." He tried to make the case before the American people for his intention to bomb Syria. This planned bombing was for nothing as ambitious as overthrowing the tyrannical and murderous Assad regime, stopping the bloody civil war, or guaranteeing that chemical weapons were never again used on civilians. It was merely to show that, well, if you do this one specific thing we tell you not to do, we are going to blow some shit up and kill some people. (Obama did not address the sad history of such punitive strikes failing to accomplish anything, from Libya in 1986 to Afghanistan in 1998.)

Obama laid out a particular vision of American foreign policy in this speech: one where what the president says goes, and one where nations or situations that are patently no threat to us still call for war, wars with no defined reachable purpose. Fortunately for those paying attention, after Obama was done another national politician, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), offered a speech to the nation with a different foreign policy vision: one where war is a tool to be used judiciously and thoughtfully and only with the approval of the body closest to the people, the houses of Congress. Thanks to Paul's policy entrepreneurship and the rise of libertarian-ish thinking in the American public, these dueling speeches may give the American people a rare chance to actually make a significant decision about the direction of American foreign policy.

For his part, Obama played a true diplomat bridging gaps between fact and fantasy, telling the truth that Syria posed no threat to us, not even if we started a war with them: "Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise." At the same time he assured us that Assad for no particular reason (he's got plenty of other means of killing his citizens) decided to violate the "red line" Obama already assured him would bring U.S. bloody vengeance.

Even after saying Assad is no threat, Obama went on to justify the necessity of starting this war by alluding to the supposed threats Syria's chemical weapons posed to our troops and civilians. Obama was very emphatic about certain facts about the Assad administration's responsibility for chemical attacks, even as his administration seems reluctant to release verifying evidence for media inspection.

While acting as if we were all deliberating in reason together, Obama also made it seem as if he was just being a mensch by even trying to consult Congress on waging war in Syria, even though both the Constitution and the apparently nugatory War Powers Resolution give him no authority to do on his own: "So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress." It's more than right, President Obama. It's the law of the land—a law you made it clear you are still prepared to flout.

Just like that hated tyrant George W. Bush, Obama's legal eagles tell him it doesn't matter if he has congressional approval or not, he can start any war he wants if he decides it furthers an "important national interest." Indeed, Obama ignored a House vote against his desire to start bombing Libya. And he has very little House support for bombing now (and the Senate has given up on even considering a vote now), should he decide it becomes necessary despite the face-saving provided this week by Vladimir Putin's pull with the Syrians and the possibility of them turning over their chemical arsenals.

It seems to mark one as a kooky obsessive to point this out, but the administration's belief—shared by pretty much every other administration in the past few decades—that warmaking powers reside in the president with congressional approval maybe a nice thing but by no means necessary, is just a complete lie that upends the Constitution and representative government. The Constitution unequivocally grants only Congress the power to declare war.

After a lot of executive abuse of that authority, in 1973 Congress passed one of those laws that try to give legal force to an ignored Constitution, the War Powers Resolution. Most scholars seem to interpret, and the president certainly always seems to act, as if its Sect. 1544 gives him a 90-day pass on having any good reason at all to send in troops. To my reading, his 60 days plus 30-day extension for sending in troops without congressional action should only apply if his reason for sending them falls under the sole element in the Resolution's Sect. 1541 that doesn't explicitly require congressional preapproval: "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." 

Syria does not fall into that category. Alas, it's not a question courts have ever shown any desire to adjudicate, as explained in the 1998 Political Science Quarterly article, "The War Powers Resolution: Time to Say Goodbye" by Louis Fisher and David Gray Adler, which argues that despite its intention, the 1973 War Powers Resolution has in practice lessened Congress's clear constitutional authority over warmaking.

In the far less publicized reaction  from Rand Paul, Paul made the obvious and always ignored constitutional point about Obama needing congressional approval. He also laid out many prudential reasons why our bombing Syria would not likely lead to any good outcome, and would likely lead to many bad ones.

Paul's opposition seemed measured, certainly not a full-blooded call against reckless U.S. imperial adventuring or the foolishness of trying to manage the planet. He'd vote against a Syrian war if given the opportunity, sure, but sounded more like tough guy than peacenik by saying that if war happens, the president shouldn't be hamstrung in fighting to total victory, a point laid out in a letter from Paul to his colleagues this week. The sheer monstrousness of using mechanized death from the air as a policy tool—much less as a "show 'em who is boss" tool—was not stressed.

Indeed, even as Obama tried to call in his speech on a supposed Republican love for military might in and of itself in winning them over, Paul is selling a peace that a Republican should be able to love. In another positive sign that the cross-Kentucky Rand Paul-Mitch McConnell friendship is doing more good than harm, Senate Republican leader McConnell contradicted House GOP leader John Boehner this week and came out against the Syrian attack on the very Rand Paul grounds that "a vital national security risk is clearly not at play" and that a strike could likely have "unintended consequences."

Paul's Syria stance could have legs in national politics beyond this week's war averted or postponed. A poll from FreedomWorks released this week of Republican voters shows the by now predictably growing strain of libertarian-ish thinking in Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in terms of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. It also reveals that one of the supposed hallowed principles of the GOP—hawkishness—is fading, with only 18 percent listing "strong national defense" as their top priority. Among Americans in general, as a Reason-Rupe poll released this week found, a very strong 64 percent majority have not been sold on the idea that America needs to bomb Syria.

Paul's stand, no matter how popular it is or proves to be, will sadly not be a deciding factor in how or whether the U.S. government chooses to start raining mechanized death on selected portions of Syrians' lives and property and become even more responsible for whatever crimes, against Syrians or Americans, that are committed by whatever government might succeed Assad in the case of his losing the civil war.

Why not? Because the executive branch will do whatever it wants when it comes to foreign policy, public opinion be damned. Why? Because that opinion is so easily shaped by elites, is of such little importance when it comes to voting choices (in 2012 polls showed only 5 percent saw foreign policy as their top concern), and is so easily ignored by government when need be.

Robert Merry in the National Interest Wednesday sees encouraging signs that the days when public opinion was powerless over foreign policy may be ending. After noting the extraordinary amount of public opinion and congressional pushback against Obama's desire to bomb Syria, making it the least popular foreign war in living memory prior to its launch, Merry writes that "What we're seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country's national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy." The American people have many good reason to think that, he points out: the foreign policy elites of both parties have been dead wrong about the positive results of every major foreign police contretemps of the past two decades, from Somalia to Libya and everywhere in between.

Merry concludes that we'll soon see "voter punishment directed at those who can't seem to get the message. It's going to be an interesting time in the politics of American foreign policy over the next few years."

Voters usually don't get a chance to punish anyone on foreign policy, as pretty much all viable major party opponents on the national level believe in the same expensive and destructive mess of perpetual war for perpetual security. Which is why the dueling Obama/Paul speeches are such an encouraging sign of a sea change in American politics. Only if the GOP nominates Rand Paul in 2016 will the American people have a realistic chance to actually decide if they agree with warmaking as a neutral policy tool for the executive exclusively or not. (While other Republican likelies also failed to jump on Obama's bomb Syria bandwagon, analysis of their histories indicates that's more about partisanship than a reliably more cautious foreign policy.) Paul's speech, it should be noted, was not any official GOP response to Obama, but merely his own policy entrepreneurship, the sort of thing which served him very well in the March drone filibuster.

Non-interventionists can and will hope for a more full-blooded and passionate defense of peace and minding our own business as a positive value from their most prominent national spokesperson, but Rand Paul is not his father. We have a couple of years until the next presidential race begins in earnest, and the American people will gladly forget Syria even exists if the administration stops scaring them about it.

But this week's dueling presentations from president and senator on the politics and policy of warmaking made for a debate that the American people have not been permitted to have on foreign policy for decades. The Republican Party just needs to remember that they can run against the foreign policy of managing the world now, since they can blame it on Obama—and it is politically safe and even smart for them to run on a foreign policy true to the Constitution and dedicated to actual American defense.