Opinion: Columnists

When a president gets a little, chances are he'll take a lot

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Columnists,Barack Obama,President,Syria,George W. Bush

Some members of Congress say they’ll support a limited strike on Syria. But this is a fantasy. It relies on limiting two things that naturally defy limit: war and presidential power.

War cannot be tamed. War might turn out according to plan (for everyone who didn’t get killed or maimed) but that’s largely a matter of chance. Men cannot control war — not even with the greatest military ever; not even with chants of "Yes We Can;" not even with a Nobel Peace Prize.

Punishing Bashar Assad with Tomahawk missiles for his murderous chemical-weapons attack may be just, and even sounds simple. But of course it’s not simple.

First, any attack that harms Assad is likely to help Syrian rebels. Al Qaeda is currently a central part of the Syrian rebellion. Attack Assad, help al Qaeda.

Second, Assad could make a limited U.S. engagement less “limited” by retaliating. Maybe he can’t hit U.S. troops or jets, but he could retaliate by gassing more civilians — or attacking Israel.

Think Assad is too smart to do this? My Washington Examiner colleague Philip Klein, citing a former Israeli Defense Forces intelligence chief, explained why Assad might retaliate: “If Assad gets desperate, he might decide that his last best chance of survival is to provoke an attack by Israel, thus uniting the Arab world against a common foe.”

Any such retaliation would draw us deeper into war against an ally of Iran and Russia. That would be ugly. And if we helped depose Assad’s brutal regime, we might get a more destabilizing regime in its place.

So, yes, Obama can call for a limited attack. And he may even intend one. But he can’t ensure any engagement will actually be limited, because that would involve taming war.

The other wild beast in this situation is presidential power.

When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, most members didn’t believe they were voting for a decade of all-out war in Vietnam. Eventually, Richard Nixon proclaimed he didn’t need even need the resolution to keep waging war in Vietnam.

Many in Congress in 2001 considered the post-Sept. 11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force a declaration of war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, or a license to kill Osama bin Laden. Presidents Bush and Obama have since used this AUMF as justification for detaining terrorist suspects without charges at Guantanamo Bay, conducting drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, and occupying Afghanistan for 10 years.

If you give a president a little bit of power in one area, he will take a lot of power in that area.

Perhaps with these lessons in mind, both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have criticized Obama’s draft war resolution as overly broad. They are correct, but many of them are just posturing.

It’s standard stuff for lawmakers presented with an unpopular proposal: Express concern, say the first draft is unacceptable, demand changes — then after some tweaks, declare the final product imperfect but acceptable.

Congress did this little jig of concern in late 2008 over the unpopular Wall Street rescue. Senators at first demanded more oversight of the bailout, and argued over whether the federal government should purchase “troubled assets” from banks, take equity in failed financial firms, loan money, or insure institutions or securities.

After dancing this jig, and getting legislative language they claimed addressed these concerns, Congress gave the Bush administration what it wanted. Then the executive branch proceeded to ignore what Congress had told it to do.

Bush and Obama used the bailout bill to buy shares of automakers, to subsidize hedge funds, to loan money to insurers, and even to demolish homes in Detroit.

It seems there’s no way to give a president limited power. Congress can either give him power or not, and then hope he’ll stick to limits.

But Obama hasn’t shown much restraint when it comes to the strict letter of the law. He continued Bush’s expansive use of TARP and the Sept. 11 AUMF, and he behaved similarly with regard to Obamacare.

Obama unilaterally delayed the employer mandate, disregarding the deadline created by the law. The law said one thing, Obama preferred something else, and so he did what he thought was best. He’s done similarly with at least three requirements relating to the law’s insurance exchanges.

Some Congressmen may support a strike on Syria on the condition it’s limited. This would require taming war, constraining the executive, and keeping Obama strictly to the letter of the law. In other words, it’s a fantasy.

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.

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