Free Advice from Bill Kristol

Republicans who still look to Bill Kristol for political advice will find his case that “yes” is “The Right Vote” over at The Weekly Standard today. Ignore those melting phone lines, Kristol urges congressfolk: despite what your constituents are telling you, “no” on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria is actually “the risky vote.”

If Republicans refuse authorization, Kristol argues, “the GOP can be blamed for whatever goes wrong in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the next months and years. And plenty will go wrong.” If they don’t want the Middle East mess hung around their necks, he says, then Republican lawmakers should vote for bombing Syria—and “consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” See, that’s how you minimize your political risk. With double the bombing, what could possibly go wrong?     

It’s not the most persuasive bit of political analysis I’ve ever read. But, disturbingly, Kristol’s on to something in this paragraph:

A Yes vote is in fact the easy vote. It’s actually close to risk-free. After all, it’s President Obama who is seeking the authorization to use force and who will order and preside over the use of force. It’s fundamentally his policy. Lots of Democrats voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. When that war ran into trouble, it was President Bush and Republicans who paid the price. If the Syria effort goes badly, the public will blame President Obama…. If it goes well, Republicans can take credit for pushing him to act decisively, and for casting a tough vote supporting him when he asked for authorization to act. 

There’s genuine insight there into the way we war now, and how Congress shirks its constitutional responsibilities. Domestically, as David Schoenbrod has observed, broad delegations of power allow Congress “to kiss both sides of the apple,” taking credit for the benefits of the legislation they pass and railing against whatever costs the executive branch imposes.

Congress plays the same “shell game” abroad. Where possible, modern Congresses have preferred to punt to the president and reserve their right to criticize him should military action go badly—to be for the war before they were against it, or vice versa, depending on which way the political winds blow. That’s how it worked in Vietnam and in Iraq—and that’s the danger with the Senate’s loosely crafted Syria AUMF. The provisions that purport to limit presidential action are too weak to stick, but if we get a wider, bloodier war, they’ll allow legislators to say: “That is not what I meant at all.” It’s TARP with Tomahawks. 

Still, there’s always the risk that the marks will see through the shell game. And at this point, Congress seems unconvinced that a “yes” vote is “close to risk free.”