He was known as “the great compromiser.” Henry Clay was the Kentucky statesman most famous for his role in brokering the 1821 Missouri Compromise and mediating the 1833 Nullification Crisis. Given the recent history of Congressional inaction, Clay has probably rolled over in his grave enough times to sink it a few feet further into the ground at Lexington Cemetery.
If there were a week for Clay to witness, it would be this one. Clay manufactured compromise at a time when the fate of the Union was on the line. In the wake of U.S. and French intelligence revelations that the Syrian regime deployed chemical weapons against a rebel force outside of Damascus, the question of limited military intervention on the part of the United States and others in the international community has been thrust into the spotlight.
When President Barack Obama was asked earlier in the week at a press conference about his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, he said that line was made clear by a chemical weapons treaty ratified by nearly the entire world.
Instead of taking unilateral action reminiscent of the 1999 Kosovo campaign, when Clinton supported NATO airstrikes against the Serbs despite not receiving a clear mandate from Congress to do so, Obama is asking for Congressional compromise when he doesn’t need it — and it could be a revolutionary turnaround for a presidency tarnished by political stalemate.
Following Obama’s request, CNN reports that he received support from members of the GOP including Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Sen. Rand Paul, who just months ago spoke out against Obama’s drone policy in a nearly nine hour-long filibuster, was supportive of Obama’s request for Congressional authorization, but said he would not support legislation authorizing the use of airstrikes. This time, however, Paul will face pressure from both sides of the aisle to support a compromise on intervention.
This time, a President weary of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be finally learning the lessons of history, and in more ways than one. If Iraq is any indication, a divided house cannot wage wars successfully — and beginning with Congressional authorization seems to recognize that. Though Congress handed President George W. Bush a blank check for action in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (which only Rep. Barbara Lee of California was brave enough to vote against), Obama’s request this time around is distinct because the outcome of congressional action will not be a simple yes or no. Instead, the outcome of deliberation will be a consensus on the best course of action — something that was distinctly missing when Congress handed the reigns over to Bush to careen into the Middle East.
The measure, which is continually being reworded by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, represents a process of consensus that demonstrates the power of productive disagreement.
Politico reported that the resolution (as drafted on Wednesday) sets a 60-day deadline for the use of force with the possibility of a 30-day extension. Reuters reports that the resolution “would ban any use of U.S. armed forces on the ground in Syria.” This is especially significant, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s push to keep the option of combat troop involvement on the table. If the restriction on combat troops makes it into the final bill signed by Obama, and Obama follows through on such a restriction, it will be an important example of the power of the deliberative process, and one that is often absent from Congress.
Congress has effectively steamrolled Obama’s foreign policy in the past — the funding restrictions and bans on detainee transfers instituted after Obama’s executive order to close Guantanamo are proof that Congress is not a paper tiger. Even in Kosovo, Congress voted in 1999 to successfully prohibit Department of Defense funds from being used to support a ground troop campaign.
More importantly, no matter what Obama decides to do in response, Congress is about to engage in an intense sequence of debates unmotivated by party lines or hidden agendas. We can’t fall back to divisions along party lines.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in political science and economics. His column “A House Divided” runs on Thursdays.