Robert Ehlert: President, Congress need to act now on Syria

September 4, 2013 

Robert Ehlert

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The epic vacillation of President Barack Obama on the Syrian crisis could come to some end by asking Congress to return early and focus on that alone. This move should have been done last week, given the magnitude of the situation.

The Idaho congressional delegation would welcome this discussion. Sen. Jim Risch, who is concerned about a purely punitive response against Syria, has already returned to Washington to attend meetings and briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, upon which he serves.

Friday during an interview, and again on CNN Tuesday, Risch expressed skepticism, saying, “What are we doing here?” He was not convinced the president had thoroughly thought through a military intervention. “The answer that we have to do something — that is no answer, to me, not if we don’t know what we’re doing.” He was concerned about the impact of a military strike on regional allies and Americans doing business abroad.

Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo want the president to seek congressional authorization, and Rep. Raul Labrador said Saturday he would welcome a special sessions of Congress that convened as soon as possible.

Such a session would get the attention of everyone in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Plus, having a single item on the agenda would remind each of the 535 members of Congress that they are sent to Washington to protect our “national interests.”

Perhaps the president wishes he had acted on Syria and then begged forgiveness rather than participate in this politicized and protracted public relations campaign to lobby for permission. But as many have pointed out, we do have branches of government beyond the executive that deserve to be consulted.

The cost of our national indecisiveness now is that the Assad regime has another week to prepare to absorb the impact of a rumored missile attack. Or, as Sen. John McCain pointed out, we have so thoroughly “telegraphed” our punch it is hard to imagine it will exact the desired impact.

Though an attack may be precisely surgical using today’s technologically advanced intelligence, the aftermath establishes a “new normal.” The United States, for better or worse, will give a fresh example of acting like an international police force willing to carry out that role unilaterally whenever it feels like it.

Atrocities are legion and ongoing all over the globe and have been throughout history. Yet this one in Syria — a horrific event, for sure, that includes an incidence of sarin gas used to kill nearly 1,500 of the Assad opposition, including more than 400 children — draws our fire. Who will be tracking and preparing missiles for all of the other murderous injustices occurring in the world?

Dictators and despots who gas their own people don’t deserve to exist, but the president has done his country a disservice by the public airing of his indecisiveness. Why did the president come to the brink of his decision before finally asking his Joint Chiefs of Staff whether it mattered to attack now or at some later point? That seems like that would have been one of the first questions.

Congress’ homework — tomorrow or next week — is to outline just who the good guys and bad guys are among all the factions before we take sides. I question whether that is knowable. And while they are at it, they should do a sidebar on Egypt and a growing list of toppled governments we fund.

Lobbing cruise missiles at Assad is one form of expression. Developing a foreign policy that takes into account the broader picture is what is really needed.

It’s time for Congress and President Obama to get together and speak publicly on our national interests and goals.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, rehlert@idahostatesman.com, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho. His columns are online at IdahoStatesman.com/RobertEhlert.

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