So when the president stood up and said we will not tolerate such brutality, I was thinking about the young Americans who would deliver that message halfway around the world and was feeling proud to be a citizen of a country that stands for something. No, we shouldn’t be in the regime-change business. No, we can’t stop civil wars everywhere. But no leader should think he can use chemical weapons against his own people with impunity.
Unless Congress thinks differently, of course.
Within a 24-hour period, the administration went from announcing military action as a matter of principle (in far more detail than we needed to know) to deciding that, actually, the president would wait to see what Congress has to say when it comes back from vacation next week (no rush there).
What happened? Is there some new piece of intelligence that we don’t know about but would perfectly explain what otherwise appears to be a fairly classic demonstration of political weakness?
I hope so.
Otherwise, the administration’s actions are pretty much impossible to defend.
This is not, I should add, a matter of constitutional law.
As commander in chief, the president could have ordered the sort of limited strike the administration has been talking about without getting approval from Congress. He didn’t need Congress; he needed the public. And when it became clear that he did not have that support, he needed cover, which is when he decided to go to Congress. At least that’s how it looks, which is why I would prefer to believe in some new piece of intelligence, even though logic tells me that if there were new intelligence, the way things have been leaking here, that would have been leaked, too, if for no other reason than that it would make the administration look less weak for changing course.
So what happens next?
The president is meeting with congressional leaders to try to line up support for the line in the sand. Members of Congress, many of whom would prefer not to have to cast an unpopular vote (and it will be an unpopular vote for many, because the district is dominated either by liberals who oppose the use of force or by conservatives who are angry that the president delayed action), are now being forced by the president’s odd dance to do just that. But if it’s not an easy vote for some members of Congress, the danger is even greater for the president.
He could narrowly “win” with the help of Republicans, which doesn’t help Democrats heading into the midterms, or he could “lose” because his own party doesn’t support him, which doesn’t help Democrats, either. He is liable to be blamed for whatever goes wrong, and something certainly will, whether we act or not.
Is there another alternative? Could this be a magic “turning point” in American politics, where the gladiators put aside their weapons and come together to debate whether there is any room left in real politics for lines in the sand, for matters of values, for taking a stand for its own sake, even if it will not end the war or lead to the fall of an evil ruler? Could this be an occasion to put partisanship aside to try to grapple with a fundamental and difficult question, respecting each other in the process because there are no easy answers?
Don’t bet on it.
Susan Estrich is a law professor in Southern California. She managed the presidential campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.