SHRIBMAN | The President goes to war in Syria and Iraq, but only so far
By David M. Shribman WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This is an unusual American civic moment: All of Washington is under pressure, and all the pressure points in American politics are engaged.There is the president, Barack Obama, pushing for an aggressive attack on terrorism -- even as an important poll showed the public doesn't approve of his policies against terrorism.
There is the House of Representatives supporting the president's proposal for an offensive against the Islamic State -- but the vote indicated more of his Republican rivals backed the measure than did his Democratic allies.
There is a respected general, a man routinely described as the president's top military adviser, who cautioned that ground operations may be needed against the Islamic State -- in the same week that the president himself promised that they won't.
There is the spectacle, longed for by the American people, of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi of California, joining together to put a bipartisan ribbon on a significant measure -- though the two lawmakers who supported this month's effort to train and arm the opponents of the Islamic State are the faces of especially rancorous midterm congressional elections, now only five weeks away.
There was a round of air strikes in Syrian territory to confront at least two lawless terrorist groups -- at the same time that diplomats at the United Nations were contemplating whether such an attack is lawful, and whether it might itself constitute an act of aggression. Separately, Syria and Russia were questioning the legality of the strikes.
There is the president who is often accused, even by his closest Washington allies, of being maddeningly disengaged -- but in the fight against the Islamic State, specific air strikes in Syria require his specific assent.
There is substantial public awareness of the threat posed by the Islamic State -- but most of the focus of last week's air strikes was against a group that was broadly unknown until 10 days ago and whose name, Khorasan, the president had never pronounced in public until Tuesday.
There is the Republican House that has repeatedly assailed the president for overreaching and has threatened to sue Obama for exceeding his constitutional authority -- but that now has voted to give the president expanded powers.
There is the chief executive who has repeatedly blamed his predecessor for getting the nation into unwise military engagements abroad -- but who rests part of his war powers authority on legislation George W. Bush got passed a decade ago and that Obama opposed.
There is the president whose own ascendancy grew out of public impatience with continued hostilities in the Middle East after Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" in the region engaging in the same kind of blanket statement that might someday come back to haunt him.
This presidential remark lacked the nuance Mr. Obama is fond of -- and usually adept at: "As your commander in chief," the president told American troops assembled at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, where the Central Command responsible for Iraq and Syria is located, "I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq."
Those remarks are not gaffes, such as Gerald Ford avowing that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," or Jimmy Carter sharing his teenage daughter's perspectives on nuclear war. They are presidential over-promising, and comments like those have a way of re-appearing in unexpected ways.
Here's one, from a Franklin Roosevelt speech in Boston at the end of the 1940 presidential campaign: "I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." A year later, the United States was at war with the Axis powers.
Here's another, from Lyndon Johnson in the middle of the 1964 presidential campaign: "We are not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." A year later, 184,000 American troops were in Vietnam and 35,000 people marched against the war in Washington.
For Mr. Obama, those MacDill comments aren't so much what Anna Akhmatova, the famous Russian poet, once called the "guests from the future" as they are ghosts from the future.
The president committed but restricted American power at the same time. That may have comforted both the American people and America's opponents at the same time. Once committed to battle, America's war presidents -- Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon -- offered no such comfort, nor substantial restrictions, to anyone.
Mr. Obama made his "will-not-commit-you" comments the day before a New York Times/CBS News Poll showed that only 39 percent of Americans favored sending ground troops into Iraq or Syria. It is a coincidence -- though perhaps a telling one -- that the rate of Americans who approve of the way the president is handling the situation with Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is precisely the same number: 39 percent.
Because congressional funding authority for the entire U.S. government expires on Dec. 11, both the House and Senate will have to return to the Capitol after the election for a lame-duck session. That will offer lawmakers time to have a broader debate on the terror war and Obama's policies.
Though the lawmakers in the House and Senate in December will be the same ones who were there in September -- the newly elected members don't take office until the first week of January -- they will not necessarily have the same outlook in December that they have in September.
If, for example, the Republicans win sufficient seats in the Senate to claim control in the next Congress, they may be more determined than ever, depending on the circumstances in the battle against terrorism, to rein in the president, or to push him. If the Democrats retain control -- and the prospects for that seem to be dimming -- the dynamic will be substantially different.
Whether this military effort will quiet the threat from the Islamic State or from Khorasan is unknown, though the president insists it will. But whether this unusual moment of bipartisanship and presidential initiative will quiet the American public is no mystery at all. It won't.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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