Like many of my fellow Americans, I just finished watching President Obama speak to the nation about Syria. These presidential addresses are historic for they link us to our parents’ generation and beyond.
We listen, as they did, as our Commander-In-Chief, our leader, explains the rationale behind his decision to use America’s military might on some distant shore. The gravity of the moment is clear. We set our political leanings aside and let our patriotic leanings take over.
Yet, after listening to President Obama, it is apparent that this time is different. For one thing, there is a likelihood that there will be no war, no battle, no skirmish. It is the first time in memory that a president has convened the country in such a circumstance to announce we will not be using the U.S. military.
This time was also different because this time our commander-in-chief and his team seemed confused. This Nobel Peace Prize winner sounded presidential when he spoke of a red line – his red line - that had been breached.
However, he then sought Congressional permission to do what he said he would do. Presidential, maybe. Strong, no. The only strong voice came from his Secretary of State whose voice rose and trembled with indignation at the slightest suggestion that perhaps we should gather more facts before proceeding. But Secretary Kerry was adamant, and forceful, perhaps a bit too forceful. He seemed to speak with the misguided authority of a husband who cannot bring himself to admit that he should have asked for directions.
In the end it was the Russians, those despots, who have shown us a diplomatic solution, one we begrudgingly embrace. The Russians cleared a path that allowed us to avoid doing what we really had no interest in doing.
However, while a crisis has been averted, damage has been done. I’m not speaking here of damage to America’s standing in the world. Whatever credibility we forfeited in that realm can be rebuilt. No, the more lasting damage is the way the incident expanded the gulf between Washington and the American people. It was amazing, yet predictable, how easily the President was able to get Congressional leadership – Democrats and Republicans – to sign on to his Syria strategy. The leadership in Washington, those insiders, locked arms and presented a unified front to a nation full of doubt. Yes we have doubts about Syria, but our real doubts are directed toward our leaders.
What they have forgotten is that there is a contract between the American people and the people we send to Washington. We elect them and, regardless of whether or not they received our vote, we expect them to exhibit moral fiber. We expect them to know where the bright line is between politics and statesmanship and to honor that line. Finally, we expect our leaders to lead.
Our leaders, ostensibly the best this country has to offer, once again came up short on all three measures. As a result, the cynicism of the American people hardens just a bit more. At this point, no one expects the Washington crowd, the bunch that so mishandled the Syria question, to effectively deal with immigration, the debt ceiling, or any of the other issues waiting in the queue.
Yes, we averted a crisis, but damage has been done.
George Lightbourn is the former president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
September 11, 2013