A war nobody believes in, led by a man nobody trusts. If Barack Obama is still looking for a legacy, here it is. Everything about the Syrian dilemma stinks.
Bashar Assad is recognized by nearly everybody as the source of at least half the stink. But only half. The rest of the stench is supplied by the rebels. It's tempting to suggest that Mr. Obama, who yearns for applause, deserves the dilemma.
Bombers always sound to the uneducated ear like the cheap, quick and sensible way to punish international bad guys. Lots of bang-bang, fire, smoke and bravado is exciting, stimulating and inspiring, guaranteed to warm the blood of those who are not required to shed the blood. Bombs usually accomplish considerably less than expected, as decades of war on nearly every continent have demonstrated to anyone paying attention.
But cutting an American president, any president, off at the knees is no strategy, either, even if he's a president who deserves punishment for screwing up everything he touches and threatens to make incompetence the national virtue. If the president really wants to go to war over Syria's chemical weapons, and doing it alone unless you count the French, he should have done it without consulting Congress, since he thinks congressional permission is not really necessary. Congress only wants to belabor the obvious, anyway, and spend the rest of summer and early autumn debating, preening and trying to avoid responsibility for saying either yea or nay.
Several "key" senators put together a bipartisan version of an administration deal with Congress, and the resolution is a corker. In fact, it was written by Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican, and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democrat. The actual architect was whoever invented Swiss cheese, because it has many loopholes, some of them large enough to drive an Abrams main battle tank through and on to Damascus, breaking off just enough cheese for an omelet. Mr. Menendez emerged from the negotiations bubbling with pride of authorship.
The deal would give the president "the authority he needs to deploy force," he said, while "assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused, limited in time, and assures that the armed forces of the United States will not be deployed for combat operations in Syria."
This is a cheesy way to fight a war, and ineffective besides. A war requires more than boots on the ground, and John Kerry keeps assuring us that no American footwear will touch Syrian sand. But change always happens. Anyone who has heard these promises before, beginning with Lyndon Johnson ("We seek no wider war"), is naturally skeptical. Harry Truman never called the Korean War a war; it was only "a police action." FDR promised in 1940 that he would never send "American boys" to a foreign war. Circumstances change.
The cliche about boots does not impress Charlie Rangel, the Democratic congressman from Harlem, who brought a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star home from Korea. "You cannot be part pregnant in international conflicts," he says, "and once you get in, all these resolutions mean nothing." He doesn't think most members of Congress "have any skin in the game."
He makes the obvious point that the makers of war are rarely the fighters in the war. "You know, they don't get these volunteers for combat from Harvard or Yale," he says. "They get them from communities like mine ... if members of Congress thought for one minute that [the country would be] drafting their kids and their grandkids, you would not see this overwhelming sense of patriotism that you see."
The invasion of France was the most carefully plotted battle of World War II; the quartermasters calculated down to the last bean how many beans the Navy would need for its signature soup in the ships off Normandy. Dwight Eisenhower ruefully conceded on the eve of D-Day that once the first shots are fired all the carefully drafted plans are gone with the wind. Congressional resolutions, however eloquently parsed, mean nothing once the war begins.
Saying "pox on both your houses" is no policy, either, even if it replaces "no policy." Barack Obama painted himself into this corner, taking the rest of us with him, and in a fair and ordered world, we could walk away to let the Islamic precincts of the Middle East stew in their own bile, venom and malignant evil.
If the president loses the vote, his credibility will be lost for sure and for good, but so will the credibility of the United States. For better or worse, the credibility of the president, any president, and the credibility of the nation are bound together. That's what makes this dilemma particularly and spectacularly bad. This one may be a hold-your-nose vote to give Barack Obama his legacy.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.