Monday, September 2, 2013

Syria and the Northern Star

Syria and the Northern Star

For nearly five years our entire national (and often local) politics have been centered on one person, Barack Obama.  He has been our Northern Star. 

Back in April, in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher's death, we touched on the emotional aspects of being either an Obama-hater or an Obamabot.  Now, in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Syria, and Mr. Obama’s surprising request for Congressional approval of military action, I want to talk about the intellectual and policy implications of this intense focus.

Syria shines a light on this in a way the way nothing else has since Mr. Obama took office.  It is a highly complex problem that resists easy answers: particularly if the only tool in your pocket is your Obama Compass. 

I have often been amazed at how many Republicans excoriate Obama for everything--even ideas that were Republican in origin.  They just can’t stand the man; they orient themselves on any public event or policy matter as the anti-Obama, even to the point of complete irrationality. 
Democrats (including me) are guilty as well; we are far too willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt when we would have been at the ramparts if Bush were still in office.  I could defend myself by pointing to the pervasive ugliness you see in many of the assaults on Obama, and there is a lot of ugly to go around. But I think that is just as much a crutch as that used by those who attack on sight.  It can’t be just about Obama, it has to be about core principals. Either you have them, or you don’t, and while governing is often about finding a middle ground, there are aspirations that should not be easily surrendered, and actions that are simply anathema.  In short, some political and policy ethics cannot be situational.  

And that is why Syria is such an incredibly difficult issue for everyone, because once you get past the nonsense trope that none of this would have happened if Obama had conducted a more manly foreign policy (in case you haven’t noticed, the Middle East is one endless tribal war and the Assads have been murderers for decades) you still are left with gigantic questions.  What are American interests there? Do we have a humanitarian duty, and if yes, why doesn’t the rest of the world share it? Who are the good guys—and knowing who a bad guy is doesn’t mean we know who the good guys are.  If we are willing to intervene, how much of our military resources that we should be willing to deploy?  Missiles?  Airstrikes by drones?  Airstrikes with our air force?  Boots on the ground?  Are we willing to commit to staying there afterwards? None of this is easy.

When Mr. Obama kicked the can to Congress, he may have reminded us that outsourcing our intellect to our limbic system isn’t really enough.  There is no sound bite that will resolve this.  Rather, we have to think about this, pick through difficult options, and be willing to accept a less-than-optimal result.  In short, we have to make choices and live with the consequences. 

There has been (and it will continue) an outpouring of criticism of how Mr. Obama handled the situation to date.  Some of it is justified.  But once everyone gets done indulging his or her pique, the problem still exists, and still begs for a solution. Congress itself is confused.  Ed Keefe, in the Washington Post, identifies at least five different opinion caucuses in the House and Senate.  They range from the drumbeaters for big military action (McCain/Graham) to the “do it now” caucus, the “happy to debate, reserving judgment” group, the “skeptical but will listen” bloc, and what O’Keefe calls the “anti-military action caucus.”  What is even more fascinating is that you can’t necessarily tell what side they are on by simply checking the letter on their jersey.  The antis, for example, consist largely of a completely improbable alliance of isolationist Tea Party types and older anti-war liberals. 

There is both promise and peril here.  Promise, because if the parties can actually work together on this, maybe they can work together on other things. Peril, because we can really screw this up if we aren’t careful.  Doing something just because Obama didn’t do it, or hasn’t asked for it, is not a guide.  Nor is blindly following his recommendation.  The reactions of many in Congress over the last 24 hours show a recognition of that.

There’s a fascinating moment in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where Henry VIII is discussing archery with Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell tells the King that he often practices by entering tournaments with his guild against the butchers, the grocers, and the vintners.  Henry’s eyes flicker to life; he suggests they go together, with Henry in disguise.  But he knows it’s a fantasy; he cannot escape his rank, he cannot escape being King, and the moment passes.  It is a throwaway scene that tells you nothing, and everything. 

That is Congress’s problem right now.  Obama has gone to them, as many of them demanded, and they cannot escape their rank.  He has explained why he wants to intervene in Syria, and in the next several days, Secretary of State Kerry and other officials will provide additional information.  There will be some who persist in seeing it as a political problem only; at least two conservative columnists I read yesterday saw an opportunity to trade GOP support for some domestic concession by Obama.  Lives for tax-cuts and entitlement reform. 

But, at the end of the day, each person will have to take a stand.  Some will try to prevaricate, some will hedge, many will bluster or blame the predicament solely on Obama and, by doing so, try to escape their responsibilities.  But all will end up voting.  All will be on record. Sometimes, it is not all that much fun to be King.

My friend Cynical Cynic emailed me last night to say, “The case is a moral one.”  Perhaps, when you have lost your Northern Star and have to fly by dead reckoning, “moral” is as good a guide as any.