THE BLOG
09/29/2014 07:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Profiles In Cowardice

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The United States Congress is currently abdicating one of its most solemn duties: declaring when America is at war, and with whom. This is nothing short of disgraceful, and every member of Congress who didn't actively push their leadership to hold a vote should be ashamed of themselves right now. Because by completely abdicating their constitutional warmaking power to the executive branch, they are displaying nothing short of their own "profiles in cowardice."

It matters not what their individual positions may be on the current (and escalating) conflict in Iraq and Syria, because whatever their stance it should now be clearly known by the public. Instead, they have shirked their duty to country and Constitution, and have not voted either for or against this new war. Being pro-war or anti-war doesn't make you a coward, in other words, but not publicly taking a stance either way most surely does.

There are really only two concrete reasons for Congress not holding a vote, and both of them are pathetic: (1) "Voting on war is hard," and (2) "It might hamper my bid to get re-elected." Neither one of these is even remotely close to being an acceptable excuse for not doing the job the taxpayers handsomely pay them to do. But when you strip away all the whining, these are really the two core issues which precluded such a vote.

The first of these is that a war vote -- any war vote, really -- is a tough thing for an elected official to contemplate. Lives hang in the balance, both American and foreign. It is a meaningful and significant thing for Congress to decide to do. Nothing could be more serious.

Adding to the toughness of such votes is the fact that it is not currently even a partisan issue. The laughably inadequate vote that they did take up (money for Syrian "moderates") was what I would call a truly bipartisan vote all around (which I'd define as: "significant numbers of both parties voted both for and against"). There are Democrats for the war and against the war. There are also Republicans on both sides of the issue. It is about as bipartisan as it gets, which is all fine and good because going to war should never be a political punching bag used by one party against the other for purely political reasons. It's far too serious for that sort of nonsense, to put this another way.

Both Republicans and Democrats instead chose the cowardly way out, by not voting on an "Authorization for Use of Military Force" (A.U.M.F.) for Iraq and Syria. Republicans are much more comfortable being Monday-morning quarterbacks, eager to pounce on anything Obama does wrong without having to explain beforehand how they would do anything differently. There is no alternative Republican war plan that contrasts with the president's, for good reason: because parts of any Republican alternative might prove to be wrong or ineffective. By not specifying what they'd do instead, it frees them up to endlessly complain about how Obama's waging the war. Democrats aren't much better, because they are caught between reflexive support for a president from their own party and the all-consuming fear that their own constituents won't agree with their vote (no matter which way they cast it).

To sum up: war votes are hard. My response: too bad. This is the job you signed up for, and shirking your duty should not be considered an option. Want this war? Vote "aye" and let the people know that. Don't want this war? Deliver a speech on the floor of Congress before voting "nay," in an attempt to convince others of your position. This is how it is supposed to work.

The second reason no vote was held was even more pathetic than the first. Congress is now off on the campaign trail, trying to get re-elected to serve another term. From the beginning of August to mid-November, Congress will have been in session for less than two full weeks. That is disgraceful, right there. Congress broke much earlier than they usually do to hit the election trail, in the midst of the start of a war. There is only one word for this, and it is cowardice.

What is ironic is that President Obama is relying on a previous war vote to shoehorn in this new war by using language written over a decade ago. He is essentially taking the legal position that this isn't a new war, but instead merely the continuation of a conflict that appears will have no end, ever. Even if America is successful in obliterating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, there will always be another hotspot that some future president will fit into the same logic: that the 2002 A.U.M.F. covers pretty much anything the occupant of the Oval Office wants it to. The irony is that this previous war vote happened in mid-October -- right before a midterm election. The Congress of 2002 didn't really want to vote on a war just before an election, but they did. The Congress of 2014 didn't, so Obama just used the previous A.U.M.F. instead. That's the ironic part.

How can any politician say with a straight face "politically campaigning for re-election was more important than deciding if America should go to war"? Do they know no shame? How can any politician -- right or left -- later have the temerity to complain about how a war is going, when they couldn't even bring themselves to either support it or oppose it when it was proposed? Bill Maher should deliver one of his "new rules": you don't ever get to criticize a war you refused to vote on. Period.

Congress doesn't even have the excuse that the war was inconveniently started (for their own schedules). The disgracefully short period when they were actually in session coincided with President Obama's announcement of the war. They had plenty of time to deal with it, one way or another. They could have wholeheartedly supported Obama's new war. They could have shut it down completely by voting it down. Or they could have even tried to micromanage it to one degree or another, by the language they chose to vote on (where they could have explicitly stated "no ground combat troops shall be used," for instance). They had plenty of options on their plate, in other words. They chose none of them. They chose instead to maybe come back and vote later -- either after the elections, or perhaps after the new Congress is sworn in next January. When they get around to it, in other words.

There is plenty of blame to go around on this one. Harry Reid and John Boehner should both be ashamed to show their face in public, for not doing their sworn duty. Either one of them could have forced the issue in their own house, which would have made the pressure on the other to follow suit enormous. They didn't -- neither one of them. The Republicans or the Democrats could have loudly staged a protest against their own leadership for ducking such an important responsibility. They didn't. Instead, they slunk out of town to go beg the voters to send them back to Washington.

I don't know why any voter in their right mind would do so. Why should these politicians be sent back when they have so adequately proved that they cannot do the job, through nothing more than sheer cowardice?

This is nothing short of a disgrace. I have nothing but contempt for any member of Congress who wasn't speaking out in public in favor of an A.U.M.F. vote (to be fair: there were actually a number of congressmen and congresswomen who were calling loudly for a vote -- these members are completely exempt from all the sentiments I've expressed in this column). If any individual voted counter to what I believed about this war, I would have disagreed with them but I would have done so with respect for them taking a position. That is not even possible, though, because none of them went on the record either way. Which leaves me with nothing but contempt, all around.

Congress will now have the luxury of waiting a few months to see how the war is progressing before they have to take a stand on it. If John Boehner gets his way, this might not happen until January or February -- over six months after the first bombs fell. Such a vote will be pretty meaningless, because it will be nothing short of either: "The war's going well, yay!" or: "The war's going badly, boo!"

This isn't even "putting party before country," folks. This is nothing short of "putting my own job before all else." My thesaurus isn't big enough to contain enough terms to express the depth of my feelings about this inaction. It is pathetic. It is disgraceful. It is contemptible. It is self-serving in the extreme. It is a complete and utter dereliction of duty. It is downright disgusting. It is completely shameful. It is an outrage. If any historian later writes a book about this period, they can borrow John F. Kennedy's title, with only one small change, because today's Congress is nothing short of a collection of profiles in cowardice.

 

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