Let's Wait Until Obama Leaves Office to Rewrite His Legacy
As the crisis in Iraq has unfolded, there has been a lot of hemming and hawing by pundits about whose fault it is and what should be done about it. Many Republican leaders who called for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and who supported the occupation afterwards, have been blaming the president for pulling troops out, and calling for air strikes and military aid for Iraq to fight the jihadists.
Many liberal commentators have been pointing out that it was George Bush who organized the agreement that mandated the removal of American troops in 2011, that the president attempted to keep a standing force in Iraq past this date, and that any force the US left would not have stopped the Iraqi army from taking off their uniforms and running away from a group of fighters they outnumbered 30 to 1. Some observers have even pointed out that these groups have grown in power because of the chaos in Syria, and that those like John McCain who have called for strikes have also called for the US to arm the rebel groups fighting Bashar al Assad, which includes ISIS. And to counter the call for air strikes, they say that it is the duty of Congress to declare war, that the president should not act alone against Iraq, and that if the Republicans want to send the US military back there they should call for a vote on it.
Now, the information countering the conservative narrative on the crisis is true and necessary, as it is the duty of all sane people to de-construct the myths intended to inflate the power and influence of people who seek those things through deceit. But in arguing that the decision to take military action in Iraq should reside in Congress, many liberal commentators have said that when deciding about action in Syria, President Obama went against the grain and gave the decision to Congress. While I understand the intention behind this and largely agree with the sentiment, that statement is flagrantly untrue.
There is a temptation among both political parties to try to justify the negative or unsettling actions of their leaders, normally with the old hand wave of “The other side is worse.” This can be justifiable during an election, but when policy is on the table, wilful ignorance - or worse, the manipulation of events to justify a narrative is an egregious affront to our political culture. It plays into the narrative of Great Man History, where changes in nations are driven by leaders rather than the political will of the people. This view of history creates the sense that government is driven by politicians rather than the people who elect them, and that we have only to sit on our hands and wait for our great leaders to deliver us.
Indeed, when it comes to President Obama, that narrative seems to have been in place since before he was elected, ironically coming into office with a massive base of young organizers on the unspoken promise that he would fix everything. History will most likely take on the view of Obama as a figure who transformed American culture when in reality almost every groundbreaking decision he made had been fought for by activists for years. But let's not get ahead of ourselves by rewriting his history while he is still making it.
So let’s be clear about what happened with Syria. In August of 2013, the Assad government used chemical weapons on its own people, and there was enough video and other evidence of the attack that it was indisputably a chemical weapons strike. Within the next few days, the president began moving warships to the area and planning out military options. There was no consultation of Congress in the initial decision to strike Syria. What changed his mind was seeing the UK Parliament vote against intervention, meaning that the US would be going completely alone. Two days after the British vote, the president gave a speech asserting that he still had the authority to strike Syria, but that he was giving the decision to Congress to add legitimacy to the action. It was never directly stated what would happen if Congress rejected the strike, but as he insisted that he had the authority, so one could assume it would go ahead regardless. (The President then prepared a second speech given directly to the American people arguing for the strike, a case for military action that was slightly undermined by a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons issue being reached four days later.)
And importantly, praising of the president for “giving” the decision to Congress ignores the fact that he directly ignored Congress and the War Powers Act during the bombing of Libya. There, the president ignored deadlines for justification of military action to Congress through obscurantist language meant to dodge the legal definitions of military action.
As dismaying as it is, this action was the one that defied constitutional precedent, a constitutional precedent followed by the previous president. As much as I despise the policy agenda of President Bush, and as unjust and destructive the Iraq war was, it was a war approved by Congress, taking support from warhawks like John McCain and spineless, opportunistic Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry.
Let’s not engage in this kind of reality manipulation to suit our goals. We on the left often attack pundits on the right for bending facts to fit their agenda, as they are doing on this issue. Let’s not do the same to defend the actions of our leaders.
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