William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.
You are master of the words you don't say and slave to the ones you do.-- Anon.
Do words really matter?
That's the question Congress will be grappling with next week when it votes on President Barack Obama's resolution to authorize military action against Syria. Does America really need to strike the Assad regime just because our commander in chief sequentially uttered the words "red" and "line" at a news conference a year ago?
It will be tempting for Republicans and Democrats alike to answer "no" to that question, because there's almost nothing the United States can gain from such a strike. The only issue is how much credibility we, as a nation, would lose if Congress denies the president's request.
Suffice it to say, Obama has put our legislative branch in a bad spot.
Secretary of State John Kerry makes a passionate argument for an American response to the alleged nerve gas attack on civilians by the Assad regime, but that's just the latest chronicling of an immutable truth about mankind as a species: We are capable of showing unspeakable cruelty toward one another in and out of wartime. Innocents worldwide have been murdered in horrific ways for thousands of years, and they will be for 1,000 more if we don't destroy ourselves first. We cannot intervene in every Nanking massacre, Khmer Rouge killing field, North Korean execution or Sudanese female stoning, as unbearable as those things are to consider. American resources are great, but not unlimited.
Plus, there's that rule of unintended consequences to contend with: What if a missile strike on a Syrian artillery battery results in return fire that sinks a U.S. ship? What if Hezbollah, Iran's transnational terrorist network, sets off a bomb in Paris, Istanbul or New York? What if Iran really does bomb Israel? What must our response be then? History teaches us that "limited strikes" have limitless possible outcomes, and sometimes they get away from us (see 1914-1918).
It will be tempting, too, for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to stick it to this president for his well-documented arrogance toward the legislative branch. The president is already on his heels from the Obamacare debacle and the nation's continuing economic slump; a "no" vote on Syria could be the coup de grâce for an internationalist unable to line up broad international support, not to mention a president who railed against President George W. Bush for militarily engaging another chemical weapons user, Saddam Hussein.
But here's the thing: President Obama is our commander in chief, like him or not, and with almost three and half years left in his presidency, none of us can afford to see him so weakened on the world stage. A "no" vote would constitute an emasculating rebuke of an American president at the very time when American hegemony is viewed as being in global retreat.
And so that's the question facing Congress: What represents greater danger to America, a feckless missile strike that could ignite a wider conflagration, or the crippling of a president's credibility in the eyes of a treacherous world? Neither is a good option, but the latter almost assuredly could be more harmful in the long run.
Politics ends at the nation's shore. Congress must back this president, whether he has spoken wisely or not. Words spoken by the U.S. commander in chief have to be backed up.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.