Sunday, April 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: Syria, a bipartisan cause

Since the dawn of the republic, American statesmen have understood that this country cannot isolate itself from world politics but that the U.S. position in the world hinges on taming the factions and partisanship that inevitably plague domestic politics. • In the Federalist No. 11, Alexander Hamilton argued that ratifying the Constitution would create a solid American front against the "arrogant pretensions" of imperial Europe. • "It belongs to us," Hamilton wrote, "to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother" — Europe — "moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs."

Channeling Hamilton 160 years later, Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan said that partisan politics stops "at the water's edge" — and rallied the GOP behind treaties and institutions that a Democratic president, Harry S. Truman, fashioned to secure peace and freedom after World War II.

Today, the question before Congress is ostensibly narrow: whether to give President Barack Obama a green light to use military force against the Assad regime in Syria to enforce the international norm against using chemical weapons.

As framed by historical circumstances, though, the issue is far more fateful: What's left in the fund of national unity upon which the United States has drawn, time and again, to support its global role?

Denied backing from the United Nations, Britain's Parliament and public polls, Obama has turned to a Congress more polarized along partisan lines than any other in recent memory, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center.

There is three times more ideological divergence between the parties than in 1947, when Vandenberg spoke, reflecting growing divisions among the public generally.

In foreign affairs, the organizing principle of Cold War containment is gone; in its place, a long but inconclusive struggle against Middle East terrorism and instability has produced weariness and divisions that cut across partisan lines.

If only Congress were split along neat two-party lines! But it's splintered among Democratic doves and Republican neocons, Republican libertarians and Democratic humanitarian interventionists.

Obama showed chutzpah tossing the Syria hot potato to this disputatious bunch, since he contributed to this predicament by drawing a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons that Syrian President Bashar Assad was bound to cross, and even now he asserts unilateral constitutional authority to strike.

Having demonized House Republicans who demonized him, and having said he doesn't need to wait for Congress on various domestic policy issues, Obama invokes constitutional procedure and requests bipartisan aid, even as a White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, offers the Washington Post a crasser view of congressional prerogatives: "We don't want them to have their cake and eat it, too."

For all that, Congress should think long and hard before denying Obama the authority he seeks. This would be true even if Republicans occupied the moral high ground with respect to political polarization — which they do not. It would be true even if Americans were not justifiably war-weary — which they are. And it would be true even if Obama were not sounding such an uncertain trumpet.

Those Republicans, and Democrats, tempted to vote no need to consider the precedent they may be setting and the signal they would send not only to Syria, or Iran or North Korea — but also to allies from Jordan to Japan.

They should acknowledge the same fact that Obama has at times seemed to deny but that his reluctant call for action in Syria tacitly concedes: The fantasy of a United States "disengaged" from the Middle East, much less from our wider role as guarantor of minimal international order, is just that — a fantasy.

Costly as it is for us to assume global responsibilities, it would be even costlier, in the long run, to abdicate them amid internal political discord, which is why Vandenberg evolved from a pre-World War II isolationist to a postwar internationalist.

Charles Lane is a member of the Washington Post's editorial board.

© 2013 Washington Post

Comments
Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Not too many people took then-candidate Donald Trump seriously when he famously campaigned to "drain the swamp" as president. But that shouldn’t give this administration a free pass to excuse the behavior of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Env...
Published: 04/22/18
Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Allegiant Air’s safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier’s high rate of mid-flight brea...
Published: 04/21/18

Editorial: Women’s work undervalued in bay area

Even a strong economy and low unemployment cannot overcome the persistent pay gap affecting full-time working women in Florida. A new report shows women in Florida earned 12.5 percent less on average than their male counterparts, and the disparities ...
Published: 04/21/18
Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

For all the symbolism, Raul Castro’s handoff of the Cuban presidency this week amounts to less than meets the eye even if his handpicked successor, the Communist Party functionary Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is the first person not named Castro to le...
Published: 04/20/18

Editorial: A missed chance for open primary elections

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission did a lot of things wrong this week by combining unrelated or unpalatable provisions into single amendments that will appear on the November ballot. It also wasted an opportunity to do one thing right. The...
Published: 04/20/18
Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

The Hillsborough school district planted a fruitful seed with the opening of Nature’s Classroom five decades ago on the cypress-lined banks of the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa. • The lessons taught there to some 17,000 sixth graders each yea...
Published: 04/20/18

Editorial: Equality pays off on Southwest Flight 1380

The passengers of Southwest Flight 1380 can be thankful that, 33 years ago, the U.S. Navy took the lead on equal opportunity.Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was piloting the flight from New York to Dallas on Tuesday when an engine exploded, blowing out a wind...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Anyone looking to make Hillsborough County government bigger, costlier, more dysfunctional and less of a regional force should love the idea that Commissioner Sandy Murman rolled out this week. She proposes enlarging the seven-member board to nine, e...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Editorial: Improving foster care in Hillsborough

Editorial: Improving foster care in Hillsborough

A new foster care provider in Hillsborough County is poised to take over operations in May, only months after its predecessor was fired for what was alleged to be a pattern of failing to supervise at-risk children in its care. Many of the case manage...
Published: 04/18/18

Another voice: Back to postal reform

President Donald Trump is angry at Amazon for, in his tweeted words, "costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy." Yet in more recent days, Trump has at least channeled his feelings in what could prove...
Published: 04/17/18
Updated: 04/18/18