In August of last year, the assembled White House press corps generously acquiesced to the president’s throat-clearing demande du choix and let him “be clear” on the subject of Syria. Secure in his clarity, Obama seized upon Chuck Todd’s inquiry as to whether the administration could “envision using U.S. military, if simply for nothing else, [for] the safekeeping of the chemical weapons” and took the opportunity to outline his position.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” he insisted, and “also to other players on the ground.” Heretofore, Obama explained, he had not considered military action against Syria to be necessary. But he knew when he would: “A red line for us,” the president established, “is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” And what would happen should either of those contingencies come to pass? “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,” Obama said. “The point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical,” he told Todd, thanking him for the question.
Obama’s approach was consistently reiterated during subsequent months. On April 25, the White House saw fit emphatically to “reaffirm that the president has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us.” The president’s official voice, Jay Carney himself, told wary reporters on May 6 that “the president’s use of the term “red line” was deliberate.” Moreover, Carney noted, “it was one that he and others in the administration have reinforced on multiple occasions ever since.” Indeed it was. So seriously did John McCain take the president’s “deliberate” and “clear” “red line” that, when it was crossed — in the senator’s estimation, without response — he argued that it yielded a “green light” to the Syrian government.
Clearly, McCain’s first mistake was to have taken the president at his word. After all, red and green are rather absolute colors, and lines, by their nature, are horribly binary. Maybe that sort of thing works for Manichean types like George W. Bush or Teddy Roosevelt, but it is wholly unsuited to the brilliant nuance that we can routinely expect from our 44th president. And so, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, the red line on which America’s hawks were relying came to be wherever the president said that it was. Reports of the transfer and possible use of chemical weapons came and went. But on the president floated, à la Churchill’s barb, “in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”
When the Assad regime finally called the president’s bluff, gassing its own people in such a brazen manner that even the administration was unable to claim uncertainty, it was time for Obama to give in and declare war . . . on the English language.
First came the field artillery. “President Obama did not draw the red line,” Nancy Pelosi declared on September 3, “humanity drew it decades ago.” Testifying in the Senate later the same day, Secretary of State Kerry further softened up the ground: “Now,” he complained gravely, “some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”
And so, with that dull sense of inevitability that descends when the barrage falls quiet and the whistles squeak weakly along the length of the trenches, the president emerged on Wednesday to tell a refreshingly tenacious assortment of foreign journalists that “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.” In Sweden, Obama channeled his inner John Lennon: “I am he as you are he as you are me — and we are all together,” he seemed to say. Or, as another celebrity known for an uncanny ability to turn black into white put it, “We are the world.”
The thing is, Obama explained, “when I said that my calculus would be altered by chemical weapons, which the overall consensus of humanity says is wrong — that’s not something I just made up. I didn’t pick it out of thin air.” After all, he continued, incredibly, “my credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility’s on the line.” So let’s have a little less l’état c’est moi, and a little more je suis le monde, eh?
Nevertheless, for all the heady conflation of himself and the world, the president doesn’t half sound unilateral these days. Announcing from the Rose Garden that he had made the “decision” to condescend to the strictures of the United States Constitution and “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” Obama was keen to reassure the public that his royal prerogative remained fully intact. “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” he professed.
This will not do. Contrary to this president’s touching faith in his omnipotence, Congress was not designed to be a well-staffed life-coaching service, but was instead chartered to confer legal permission to an executive branch that, on matters of war at least, is subordinate to it. Explaining that “in no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature,” James Madison observed that to afford carte blanche to the executive in such matter would be foolish, for “the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.” Alexander Hamilton, who had as expansive a view of the role of the executive as any Founder, noted that “while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and the raising and regulating of fleets and armies,” in “the Constitution under consideration” such powers “would appertain to the legislature.”
Evidently, the president disagrees. “As commander-in-chief,” he lectured perplexed Swedes, “I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security. I don’t believe that I was required to take this to Congress. But I did not take this to Congress because I think it’s an empty exercise.”
As it happens, “empty exercise” is an especially good way of describing the process of asking for the permission of an institution of whose constraints you believe yourself to be of right free. It is also a good way of describing how its apologists view this war, for Syria, it seems, is the war that isn’t a war — or, at least, in John Kerry’s comical phrase, it is not a “war in the classic sense.”
“I don’t believe we’re going to war,” a flustered Kerry told the House. “I just don’t believe that.” Majorities in both houses of the legislature are presumably set to confirm this assessment. And so they should. So farcical have the linguistic games become that we have reached a point at which Congress is being instructed that, Assad having crossed a red line that the executive branch didn’t set, it must accord the executive branch the permission that it doesn’t need to start a war that isn’t a war.
It might behoove those wondering what exactly has prompted the sudden insistence that ceci n’est pas une guerre to look back at the administration’s own pronouncements. Obama has gone rather forcefully on record with the opinion that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” His critique, coming as it did in the shadow of the Iraq War’s increasing unpopularity, prompted him to clarify that the only time the executive may bypass Congress is in “instances of self-defense.” The definition of “war” to one side, it will presumably be a stretch even for this administration to pretend that lobbing cruise missiles into a sovereign country isn’t a “military attack” (though I’d venture that the dark humorists among us are hoping that this is the next ploy).
While a senator, Joe Biden concurred with Obama, noting in 2007 that “the president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war . . . unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked.” Biden had previously warned the Senate during Bill Clinton’s second term that “the only logical conclusion is that the Framers intended to grant to Congress the power to initiate all hostilities, even limited wars.” The punishment for violation of this rule, Biden soberly suggested, should be impeachment.
In the same speech, slamming the door on what he viewed as “the ‘monarchist’ view of the war power,” Biden recalled correctly that “the Framers’ views were dominated by their experience with the British” monarchy. One can only presume that the vice president’s deafening silence on the current question is informed by his relationship with his boss — America’s very own king.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.