Please also read “Against Symbolic Killing” our editor R. R. Reno’s case against intervening in Syria. –ed.
Republicans should support some version of the authorization of force resolution. They should do so even if they think that the President’s policy will prove ineffective, do no good, waste money, or entail unforeseen risks; they should do so even if they think he has gotten the nation into this situation by blunders, fecklessness, arrogance, or naiveté; and they should so even if, and especially, if they have no confidence in his judgment. The simple fact is that the nation and our allies will be at further risk if the world sees a presidency that is weakened and that has no credibility to act. Partisans may be tempted to see such a result as condign punishment for the President’s misjudgments; they may feel that he deserves to pay the price for his hypocrisy and cheap and demagogic attacks on his predecessor. But at the end of the day, Republicans need to rise above such temptations; the stakes are too high. The weaker the president’s credibility on the world scene, the more the need to swallow and do what will not weaken it further. President Obama is the only president we have. That remains the overriding fact.
And there is the important matter of the future–a future that may one day have a Republican in the presidency. The precedent of setting too low a threshold for blocking presidential initiative in foreign affairs is unwise. Of course Congress has the right, even the obligation, to stop action that legislators believe would be disastrous. But short of that, it is wiser to maintain a good deal of discretion in the presidency. In the case at hand, all of the hyperbole about war aside, the real objection is that the President’s policy will prove to be ineffective or humiliating, not disastrous. That is not sufficient reason to weaken the discretion of the president or open the door next time to more gratuitous partisanship by the Democrats.
Nor is there any way of getting around the fact that this vote begins to set the future direction of the Republican Party —whether it will be an internationalist or an isolationist party. This President, some think, is the poorest exemplar of of intelligent internationalism one could imagine, the last person on whom to rely to to build a credible case for this position. Still, one does not always get to choose the alternatives. The truth is that, beyond the facts of this case, many in the Republican Party are itching to use Obama’s mishandling of this situation to establish a new isolationist center of gravity for the Republican Party in international affairs. That’s not the place the Republican Party should be.
The different objections to the President’s policy are well known. There are a number of Republicans who say that if there is to be a use of force, it must have a serious strategic objective: to get rid of Assad. Anything less makes the use of force silly, even counterproductive. This position might be a sound criticism; but correct or not, it is beside the point. President Obama has made clear that he is uninterested in pursuing this objective. One thing is certain: you cannot force a president in foreign affairs to follow a policy he does not believe in. The “strategic” approach is off the table. The choice of Republicans is decide between authorizing the President to act in the way he wants to act (hoping to deter the use of WMDs), or to deny him the authorization to try. That is the only choice open to us.
There are also the objections that there is no national interest in trying to stop the use of a particular kind of weaponry—you can kill people by any means; and that even if there were such an interest, a weak and limited attack will be ineffective. For those who hold such views—and they might be right—they should want to consider whether their views are of sufficient gravity to risk undermining the credibility of the presidency now and in the future. Granted that a failed policy would also weaken presidential credibility, but it would not do so nearly as much as the spectre of presidency that has little capacity to act.
Republicans who vote for an authorization of force resolution do not have to endorse the wisdom of the President’s policy. They can make clear their doubts and state their objections. They can make known that they are supporting the presidency and presidential credibility, not necessarily the wisdom of the policy. They can say that they are acting in a constitutional spirit, exercising the kind of judgment that is appropriate to the legislature in foreign policy, and no more. They can sign on to the president’s discretion to act without signing on to his actions.