With the world watching, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, could not resist the temptation of insulting his Commander-in-Chief.
Shelby on Tuesday announced he would vote against a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use limited military force against Syria.
Shelby’s position was sensible. An attack on Syria does not clearly serve U.S. interests. Indeed, it could easily damage American interests by triggering retaliation against our allies. Shelby could have expressed his opposition as many of his colleagues have done, with dignity.
Instead, Shelby treated the president with derision.
“President Obama has failed to articulate a compelling American interest in this conflict,” Shelby complained. “I have heard the President’s argument. It is weak and vague, in my judgment.”
There was a time when this nation stood proudly against evil. Americans have lost their lives throughout this nation’s history opposing brutality and offering support to the downtrodden. There have been times in our history when military action was seen both as noble and necessary, even in the absence of valuable oil reserves or threatened trade alliances.
“He has also failed to clearly explain what he intends to achieve and how he intends to achieve it,” Shelby said.
Short of publicizing a target, Obama has been explicit on both. He proposes a limited strike, without the presence of U.S. troops in Syria, which will serve as a deterrent to the further use of chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad enjoyed a tactical benefit from gassing 1,400 men, women and children. Obama has been entirely clear that Assad needs to pay some cost; that he must recognize, even in civil war, there are global norms to which leaders must adhere.
“I will vote against President Obama’s plan because it appears that he does not really have one,” Shelby said in a last slap of condescension. It was an ironic complaint from a senator who strongly supported the shock-and-awe war expected to quickly unleash the latent love Iraqis held for America.
Possibly the most remarkable fact of Shelby’s scornful statement — one that condemned his own president but not the murderer of thousands in Syria — was that he said it from a pedestal Obama provided.
Presidents should obtain congressional approval for military actions in all but the most extreme situations, but the reality is they rarely do so. Obama recognized America is tired of war. He saw that Americans were weary of serving as protectors of people we are unlikely to meet in lands we will never see. He may also have appreciated a deep skepticism borne of too many wars that proved to be less about ideals than about riches.
Obama did not have to defer to Congress, but he did. He hoped that elected representatives like Shelby would agree that America still has a role in protecting the weak from their oppressors.
Obama turned out to be wrong. Neither Congress nor the people are willing to pay the cost, in lives or dollars, to deter Assad from gassing more of his own people.
Shelby could have voted against the resolution, and in doing so he would have followed the wishes of an increasingly cynical U.S. population. To couch his opposition in condescension and insult — not for the dictator who has massacred hundreds of thousands of Syrians, but for the leader of the free world — was an embarrassing display.