Congress shouldn’t place politics above duty on Syria

We have now placed responsibility for Syrian policy in the hands of the U.S. Congress, an institution that even in ordinary times is not well-equipped to handle that kind of complex, tangled issue. If you want to unravel a Gordian knot, the last thing that you want to do is hand that task to a committee of 535, each with his or her own idea of how it ought to be done.

Yet with all that said, Congress is also the right place for these issues to be debated and even decided. It’s time for that institution to step up to its constitutional responsibility as a partner to and balance against the executive branch, and to make its sentiments known one way or the other. It is time for it and its members to be counted.

I don’t say that with any great faith that Congress will make the right decision, in part because like many Americans, I’m not certain what that “right decision” should be. While I believe that Congress ought to approve a narrowly drawn resolution allowing President Obama to enforce the “red line” barring use of chemical weapons against civilians — both as a matter of national policy and of human decency — I also recognize that opponents of intervention raise valid objections against it.

It is entirely conceivable, for example, that U.S. military action in Syria could broaden that civil war and draw Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or some combination of the above into the conflict even more deeply than they already are. But the problem is, the same could be said of doing nothing. If Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and others become convinced that there is no outside restraint on their behavior, things could get much worse pretty quickly. As members of Congress contemplate their votes, that’s something to keep in mind.

I also realize that many Americans are deeply disillusioned by our experience in neighboring Iraq, where more than 4,000 U.S. troops lost their lives in a major foreign policy blunder. They no longer trust the judgment or even the integrity of our own government on such matters, and for good reason. That history also helps to explain why the British Parliament voted to bar its armed forces from intervening in Syria, a vote that was critical in pushing the issue into the hands of Congress.

However, it’s important to draw a distinction between the current administration, which has clearly been reluctant to use force in Syria and has even cited repeated excuses for refusing to do so, and the previous administration, which was just as determined to make war and concocted excuses to justify it. Two different world views are at work here; one chooses force reluctantly, one did so eagerly. That distinction is important.

Three other points bear noting:

— It was troubling to see Secretary of State John Kerry, in a conference call to House Democrats over the weekend, describe the pending vote as “a Munich moment.” Assad is not Hitler and Syria is not Nazi Germany, and the attempt to equate those with doubts about Syria intervention with the likes of Neville Chamberlain is an act of intellectual bullying. The comparison is trotted out every time such questions are being decided, and it is hackneyed and dangerous and ought to be retired.

— Likewise, the coming debate and the likely closeness of the vote expose the foolishness of Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham and others who have campaigned for a much more aggressive military posture toward Syria. There is very little support for such an approach in Congress or among the American people, and without such support no such effort should ever be launched. Whatever the outcome of the coming vote, the mere fact that it will take place should serve as a precedent and make it more difficult in the future for those inclined to choose war too easily. That’s a good thing.

— Finally, reports out of Washington suggest that the Syria resolution will be filibustered, which in practical terms means it will have to draw a minimum of 60 votes to pass the Senate. Whatever side you take on the intervention question, this is not a matter of passing legislation or confirming a judge or federal official. It is Congress acting on a grave constitutional duty, and a filibuster that attempts to block the Senate from even getting to vote on the matter is deeply inappropriate.