08 September 2013

Credibility -or- Obama's mouth wrote a check his constitutional authority can't cash

For approximately the dozenth time in my life we're having a national debate about whether to go play Sheriff in some far off brawl that doesn't concern us. Is it just me, or is this debate even more tired than the last? Is everyone as bored with this as I am?

I couldn't muster the energy to wade into this one even if I wasn't spinning too many plates already. I do want to make one observation just to keep it from rattling around in my mind every time I listen to the news. (Which is increasingly rarely.)

So... this issue of needing to fight to protect America's credibility... What the hell?

The best I can figure the Hawks' argument on this front goes as follows:

(1) The President of the United States promised that if Assad used chemical weapons then we would do something.

I'm not being purposefully vague with the "something." I believe the phrase Obama used was that chemical weapons would "change his calculus." There was no "If X then Y" with an actual definition of Y that I'm aware of.

(2) Now that POTUS has made an explicit promise*
NB: not actually explicit; see #1
and the conditions have been met, we will look weak if we don't follow through.

(3) Looking weak in this way will limit our future ability to verbally bully other dictators into submission.

(4) Therefore it is imperative that we "do something" to Assad to show that no one can take POTUS' demands lightly.

Put aside whether or not the Hawks who say this are correct in practice. Never mind that the President has written checks he doesn't have the authority to cash. Never mind that the President does not unilaterally determine the course of the American State. Never mind that he got the order of events backwards: first commit to a war, and then go about asking for permission to do so. Ignore that no amount of "altered calculus" removes Article 1, Section 8 from the equation. Forget all that.

What interests me is that you could use this same argument to justify any government action. Just promise anything, and then when you have to follow up you can silence your critics with the "credibility" argument.

How long until a President discovers this trick works on domestic matters too? I give it... one administration.

Prediction: by the end of 2020, the President will have committed/promised/pledged/whatever that the US Government would do something strictly internal. Extend unemployment, tax carbon, reassert control over state narcotics laws, whatever. Something that isn't actually in the president's power to unilaterally decide. Then (s)he will use that very same promise as a (the?) justification for why it needs to happen. That allows you to nicely sidestep the debate about whether or not it's a good idea, or whether the President has the power to do that*
* apparent de facto answer: yes, always
and replace it with an argument about "credibility." That's much easier to win. Who is against American credibility? What, you want everyone to think we're weak? That we're liars? That we can't be trusted to follow through? Of course not!

Here's my response to the people who say we need to go to war to protect our credibility: it's not our credibility that's at stake. It's Mr. Obama's. There is no "us" here. He made a promise that he shouldn't have. The rest of us are going to make a decision about what to do regardless of whatever he spouted off about, and we're going to make that decision through the proper channels in the proper ways.

PS As best I can tell, Obama is telling us we need to go to war because "Assad has lost legitimacy" and "Assad crossed the red line of using chemical weapons."

(1) I didn't realize US Presidents were empowered to determine which leaders did and did not have legitimacy in their own countries. For a former law professor, Obama is putting himself on awefully shaky philosophical ground. At what point do other Heads of State get to determine how legitimate our President it? Is there an approval rating threshold I should keep my eye on? Some point at which we're supposed to pass out ballots to Prime Ministers and Premiers about whether the guy in the White House needs to start packing his bags? I'm just trying to figure out what the principal here is besides "do what the President says because he has lots of bombs."

(2) Syria isn't a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. What's the legal reasoning behind us getting to enforce — at gun point — legislation that a sovereign nation explicitly doesn't recognize? And don't get me started on the Geneva Conventions. For one thing, they were never designed to cover civil wars, and for another if Obama insists that this isn't a war but some linguistic vomit like a "kinetic military action" he's put himself in another bind: the conventions apply specifically to war and not other "conflicts" or "actions."

If what we're doing is running around the world enforcing the whim and will of the US President, then let's be honest about that. Everyone else step the hell off; we're in charge.

PPS (9 Sep '13) What he said:

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