Wanted: A real debate

Almost everyone agrees that President Obama made the right decision in delaying any retaliatory strike against Syria until Congress has had an opportunity to debate and vote on the issue. However, the question is not how Congress will vote, but whether this particular Congress is up to the task.

From what we’ve seen so far, the answer is that it probably isn’t. This is, after all, the most divided and do-nothing Congress in history. It’s failed to act on climate change, immigration reform and gun safety. It can’t agree on a budget, or whether to pay its own bills. It can’t even pass a farm bill. Can we really expect it to hold an informed debate on Syria?

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For any Congress, this is the ultimate test. According to the Constitution, only Congress has the power to authorize the use of military force. Absent a direct attack on American soil, it’s never an easy decision. And it certainly isn’t in the case of Syria.

There are legitimate reasons for supporting Obama’s call for a military strike against Syria. The use of chemical weapons, even in wartime, has been condemned since 1925. The United States has joined 188 other nations in banning their production or use. The Syrian regime, which refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, has deployed them at least twice against its civilian population — most recently on Aug. 21, when more than 1,400 people were killed, including 400 children. Failure to hold Bashar Assad responsible would only encourage him, and other dictators, to use chemical weapons again and again.

There are also legitimate reasons for opposing the call for force. In the past, such surgical strikes — against Iraq, Kosovo and Serbia — have had little success. Economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts have not been exhausted. There will no doubt be civilian casualties in any strike. And there’s the risk that a madman like Assad could respond in a way that would drag us into Syria’s civil war or a wider regional conflict.

That’s where the debate must be: on the facts and merits of the case. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen too many Republicans trying to make a political football out of Syria. Critics like Rick Santorum and John Bolton, who were hawks on Iraq, where there were no weapons of mass destruction, are suddenly doves on Syria, where there are WMD. One suspects they’re only against it because Obama’s for it. 

This is too important. Partisan politics should have nothing to do with this decision. Members of Congress must decide not on whether action will make Obama look weak or strong, not on what opinion polls say, but on what’s best for the country and the world.      

For my vote, when I saw photos of the 20 first-graders murdered in Newtown, Conn., I joined the call to ban assault weapons. When I see videos of the 400 children gassed outside Damascus, I reluctantly join the call to hold Assad accountable. 


Press is host of "The Bill Press Show" on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.