World War II began 74 years ago Sunday when German troops invaded Poland. The invasion conclusively discredited the concept of “appeasement” as a foreign policy for, well, the next 74 years. But if the U.S. Congress opposes authorization of the military mission to Syria that President Obama has now handed off to it, and if Obama uses that as an excuse to back further away from enforcement of his “red line,” the “A” word will likely come to dominate the international debate once again.
And Barack Obama, who in his first term was known as the vanquisher of Osama bin Laden, could come out of his second looking more like Neville Chamberlain.
I don’t want to overstate things. Bashar al-Assad, a tinpot dictator who is fighting only for his own survival, is no Hitler. He’s not set to overrun an entire continent. And the “lessons of Munich” and the dangers of appeasement are generally overdrawn. But, after all, it was Secretary of State John Kerry who lumped Assad with the Fuehrer on the talk shows Sunday, saying that he “now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein [who] have used these weapons in time of war.” (Technically, Hitler’s only use of gas was not on the battlefield but to kill millions in extermination camps.)
These are also the clear implications of the president’s own words. Already the United Nations, NATO, and Great Britain have failed to enforce his red line against chemical weapons use. Only the United States, with the possible help of France, stands in the way of allowing Assad to grin triumphantly atop the WMD massacre he authorized, to do it again and again, and thus make it more acceptable internationally. As Obama said in his Rose Garden statement Saturday: “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?”
So the stakes look very high indeed. All of which makes Obama’s other announcement on Saturday so unsettling. Obama said 1) Military force against Syria is justified; 2) that he has decided to use it; and 3) that he believes he has the authority to do so right now. But then he declared that he’s going to ask Congress for approval that, by his own account, he doesn’t need. Thus, a president who for the last four years has had no compunction about unilaterally deciding whom to launch drone strikes against or whom to spy on has effectively surrendered a chunk of constitutional authority to a fractious, unreliable and politically motivated Congress over the issue of redressing the perilous precedent set by Assad.
It may well be that this is “the right thing to do for our democracy,” as Obama said. But previous presidents, both Democrat and Republican, have said otherwise. They have declared even the War Powers Act (which gives Obama the authority to attack Syria for 60 days before asking for congressional approval) to be an unconstitutional infringement of presidential power.
The risk of Obama’s handover to Congress is that, as Susan Page wrote in USA Today, “he has weakened his own presidency—what happens if he doesn’t want to seek congressional authorization the next time?—and even the presidency itself. That argument is part of the reason that Ronald Reagan didn’t seek congressional authorization before ordering the invasion of Grenada, why George H.W. Bush didn’t seek authorization before launching military action in Panama, why Bill Clinton didn’t seek authorization before ordering the bombing of Kosovo.”
Obama is feeling lonely at the top because he doesn’t have the U.N., NATO, or even the British behind him this time. Still, it is more than a little odd that he is turning for companionship to the Congress that has made a mockery of his every initiative until now. And Obama has not been consistent in this policy. “If from the beginning he said something to the effect of, ‘I’m a constitutional scholar. I think the Constitution intends for the use of military force to be justified, and Congress has to approve. So I will use my presidency to make that a precedent,’ then fine, no one would be seeing it as an abdication,” says one scholar of the ethics and legality of war. “Instead, it came across as ‘I need top cover because our closest allies ever won’t follow us on this one.’”
What also smacks sadly of the appeasement era of the 1930s is all the talk about “war weariness,” from Obama and others. “I know well we are weary of war,” the president said Saturday. “But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning.”
Yet that international order is what is now in some danger, 74 years later. After all, it was just this kind of war weariness that created Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign policy of “positive appeasement” as he called it, in the years after the terrible bloodletting of World War I. If one becomes unwilling to strike dictators and mass murderers, all that remains is to appease them.