Capabilities expanded the range of policy options. Options offered opportunities to "do something" in response to crisis. From the Reagan era on, policymakers seized upon those opportunities with alacrity. A seemingly endless series of episodes and incidents ensued, as US forces, covert operatives, or proxies engaged in hostile actions (often on multiple occasions) in Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, the southern Philippines, and in the Persian Gulf itself, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider them altogether and what you have is a War for the Greater Middle East, pursued by the United States for over three decades now. If Congress gives President Obama the green light, Syria will become the latest front in this ongoing enterprise.
Profiles in Courage? If Only
A debate over the Syrian AUMF should encourage members of Congress—if they've got the guts—to survey this entire record of US military activities in the Greater Middle East going back to 1980. To do so means almost unavoidably confronting this simple question: How are we doing? To state the matter directly, all these years later, given all the ordnance expended, all the toing-and-froing of US forces, and all the lives lost or shattered along the way, is mission accomplishment anywhere insight? Or have US troops—the objects of such putative love and admiration on the part of the American people—been engaged over the past 30-plus years in a fool's errand? How members cast their votes on the Syrian AUMF will signal their answer—and by extension the nation's answer—to that question.
To okay an attack on Syria will, in effect, reaffirm the Carter Doctrine and put a stamp of congressional approval on the policies that got us where we are today. A majority vote in favor of the Syrian AUMF will sustain and probably deepen Washington's insistence that the resort to violence represents the best way to advance US interests in the Islamic world. From this perspective, all we need to do is try harder and eventually we'll achieve a favorable outcome. With Syria presumably the elusive but never quite attained turning point, the Greater Middle East will stabilize. Democracy will flourish. And the United States will bask in the appreciation of those we have freed from tyranny.
To vote against the AUMF, on the other hand, will draw a red line of much greater significance than the one that President Obama himself so casually laid down. Should the majority in either House reject the Syrian AUMF, the vote will call into question the continued viability of the Carter Doctrine and all that followed in its wake.
It will create space to ask whether having another go is likely to produce an outcome any different from what the United States has achieved in the myriad places throughout the Greater Middle East where US forces (or covert operatives) have, whatever their intentions, spent the past several decades wreaking havoc and sowing chaos under the guise of doing good. Instead of offering more of the same – does anyone seriously think that ousting Assad will transform Syria into an Arab Switzerland?—rejecting the AUMF might even invite the possibility of charting an altogether different course, entailing perhaps a lower military profile and greater self-restraint.
What a stirring prospect! Imagine members of Congress setting aside partisan concerns to debate first-order questions of policy. Imagine them putting the interests of the country in front of their own worries about winning reelection or pursuing their political ambitions. It would be like Lincoln vs. Douglas or Woodrow Wilson vs. Henry Cabot Lodge. Call Doris Kearns Goodwin. Call Spielberg or Sorkin. Get me Capra, for God's sake. We're talking high drama of blockbuster proportions.
On the other hand, given the record of the recent past, we should hardly discount the possibility that our legislative representatives will not rise to the occasion. Invited by President Obama to share in the responsibility for deciding whether and where to commit acts of war, one or both Houses—not known these days for displaying either courage or responsibility—may choose instead to punt.
As we have learned by now, the possible ways for Congress to shirk its duty are legion. In this instance, all are likely to begin with the common supposition that nothing's at stake here except responding to Assad's alleged misdeeds. To refuse to place the Syrian crisis in any larger context is, of course, a dodge. Yet that dodge creates multiple opportunities for our elected representatives to let themselves off the hook.
Congress could, for example, pass a narrowly drawn resolution authorizing Obama to fire his "shot across the bow" and no more. In other words, it could basically endorse the president's inclination to substitute gesture for policy.
Or it could approve a broadly drawn, but vacuous resolution, handing the president a blank check. Ample precedent exists for that approach, since it more or less describes what Congress did in 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, opening the way to presidential escalation in Vietnam, or with the AUMF it passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, giving George W. Bush's administration permission to do more or less anything it wanted to just about anyone.
Even more irresponsibly, Congress could simply reject any Syrian AUMF, however worded, without identifying a plausible alternative to war, in effect washing its hands of the matter and creating a policy vacuum.
Will members of the Senate and the House grasp the opportunity to undertake an urgently needed reassessment of America's War for the Greater Middle East? Or wriggling and squirming, will they inelegantly sidestep the issue, opting for short-term expediency in place of serious governance? In an age where the numbing blather of McCain, McConnell, and Reid have replaced the oratory of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, merely to pose the question is to answer it.
But let us not overlook the entertainment value of such an outcome, which could well be formidable. In all likelihood, high comedy Washington-style lurks just around the corner. So renew that subscription to The Onion. Keep an eye on Doonesbury. Set the TiVo to record Jon Stewart. This is going to be really funny—and utterly pathetic. Where's H.L. Mencken when we need him?
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of the new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (Metropolitan Books). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.