In reflecting on another military adventure in the Middle East, Winston Churchill wrote of the ill-fated Battle of Gallipoli of 1915-1916, “The terrible ifs accumulate.”
Barack Obama’s appeal to Congress for support for his military initiative in Syria prompts a slightly different assertion: The stubborn questions accumulate.
These questions persist after a hard week of presidential lobbying — from the Cabinet Room of the White House, where Obama invited congressional leaders at the beginning of this remarkable campaign, to hotel rooms in Sweden and Moscow, stops on the president’s G-20 trip that became war rooms in the effort to win backing in Congress to attack Syria.
All the meetings and phone calls may provide a tentative answer to the president’s quest, but had the deeply unsettling effect of raising these questions:
Having punted the Syria issue up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, could the president still move against Syria without congressional approval?
This question presents a political squeeze play. On the one hand, by asking for congressional approval before moving against Syria, the president is doing more than suggesting that support of a majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill is preferable to unilateral presidential action. He is saying it is essential, at least politically.
At the same time, the administration is arguing that the executive branch retains constitutional authority to mount such an attack. See the answer Secretary of State John F. Kerry gave to a question posed Tuesday by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite and a likely 2016 presidential candidate. All of which raises the next question:
Why did the president take this gamble anyway?
At first blush, this may seem a question for historians, but it is not. Having taken this gamble in this instance — unnecessary if you extend the administration’s logic as expressed by Kerry — Obama thus may be obliged to do so in the next instance.
That is more important than it may appear, for this precedent could undercut the president’s ability to mount a surprise attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities later this year or early next year. The president can no longer say, in negotiations with Tehran, that nothing is off the table. A clandestine attack almost surely would be.
As for the historical view, presidential specialists have long monitored the executive branch’s grabs for power and Congress’ counterpunches. The creation of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger described as the “imperial presidency” was met, for example, by the War Powers Act of 1973. That restricted presidential action and has been opposed by every president since Richard Nixon, who was not bashful about unilateral presidential action in foreign affairs. That prompts the next question:
What will be the state of presidential war-making power post-Obama, and has he redrawn the parameters of his successors’ prerogatives?
The answer is simple: Maybe. It is true that there have been only 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is counted twice, which is why Obama is referred to as the 44th president). It is also true that the presidency is cumulative. As in high school mathematics, you cannot take Algebra II without having mastered Algebra I.
And yet this is an ineluctable truth about American politics: Presidents reach back into history for power and authority only when it is in their interests to do so.
If Obama wanted to attack Syria without congressional authority, he could have cited Lyndon Johnson in the Dominican Republic or George H.W. Bush in Panama. Those presidents, one a Democrat and one a Republican but — not unimportant in this regard — both Texans, did not ask for congressional approval in operations that were more extended and certainly closer to home than Obama’s operation in Syria.
Obama could also cite the actions of two politically incorrect precedents, and presidents, James K. Polk in Mexico and Richard M. Nixon in Cambodia. The former would make the Democrats no friends among Hispanic voters, who have increasingly become an important part of the party’s political calculus. The latter is poison for a liberal Democrat who turned 13 only five days before Nixon resigned. A safer example: Woodrow Wilson in Mexico in 1913, though Wilson is toxic among the sippers of political tea.
Presidents with high approval ratings can sometimes split the difference. George H.W. Bush told — that word is essential here — congressional leaders about the Panama action after a Christmas party in 1989 and only hours before the operation began. Then again, before moving against Iraq in 1991, Bush sought and won congressional approval.
Is there, as Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel suggested, a modern-day domino theory at work, or could there be the phenomenon of Appeasement Redux?
Hagel is a veteran of the Vietnam War, which was prosecuted in large measure out of fear that if Vietnam fell, then so might Laos, and then South Korea and then perhaps Japan as well.
There certainly is regional tumult in the area of the globe once known as the Levant. But just as that term has fallen out of favor — it’s mainly used today by archaeologists — so may have the metaphor of the domino, which in any case belongs more to the 17th century than to the 21st. Nearly two years after the beginning of the Arab Spring, we now know there are many Arab Springs; the one in Egypt was different from the one in Libya and elsewhere.
The war in Vietnam also was prosecuted on the basis of the lessons of Munich, which postulated that if aggression were unanswered in one place (Czechoslovakia) then there would be aggression again in other places (Poland). That certainly was true in 1938, but it may or may not be true today.
The lessons of history are more complex than simply grafting old notions onto new situations. History never repeats itself — that’s Lesson One of history — and the lessons are valuable only if they are applied selectively. History is best utilized to understand the past and to explain the present. It’s a rearview mirror, not a telescope, and hardly ever much help in predicting the future.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.