Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate – often self-important, often self-centered – are accustomed to saying that the whole world is watching the proceedings on Capitol Hill. That's hardly ever true; even most Americans pay little attention to floor action. But not this week. This week Americans are paying attention and the whole world is watching.
The whole world is watching what the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-led House will do about supporting the president in his effort to undertake military action against Syria. And as people around the globe watch, they are seeing an unusual spectacle: American lawmakers struggling with history as they are making it.
This debate is coming at an usual time, little noted but deeply relevant – indeed, unavoidable. This month marks the 75th anniversary of the agreement at Munich, regarded as the high-water mark of appeasement. It was the moment at which Great Britain and France capitulated to Nazi Germany's demands for the Sudetenland, the democracies believing, against all evidence, that acceding to this latest demand from Adolf Hitler would end the strife in Europe. It was an act that forever tarnished the phrase "peace in our time." The words "appeasement" and the Munich metaphor are not echoing around Capitol Hill, but the 1938 precedent nonetheless is heavy in the air: Allow Bashar al-Assad to get away with Sarin gas attacks and he, or someone else, will resort to chemical warfare again, or worse. That is the Obama argument, made from world capitals and in his own capital.
What is in the air of the Capitol is a more recent precedent, this one 10 years old. A decade ago, George W. Bush led the nation into an Iraq incursion based on flawed if not phony intelligence. As a result the cries of "not again" on the anti-appeasement side (those favoring the attack) are being matched by similar vows on the suspect-rationale sand the not-our-role side (those opposing the attacks).
The effort to draw lessons from historical events isn't confined to the democracies' failure to address the aggression of Europe's dictators in the years leading to war in 1939 or the anti-Iraq coalition's failure to examine the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Some Republicans worry the undertaking the president is contemplating in Syria will resemble that of the last Democratic president, when Bill Clinton's initiative in Kosovo required 11 weeks of NATO bombing.
The President's initiative has provoked deep introspection about how and when America goes to war. Two intriguing perspectives are in wide circulation, separated by two centuries but relevant to what is happening in the second decade of the 21st century.
One of those perspectives is a paper by a Johns Hopkins University scholar, William Adler, who, among other findings, sets out 10 "major conflicts" with Native American tribes between 1790 and 1858. In all of those conflicts more than 1,000 American troops were involved – no U.S. troops are contemplated for Syria, only air strikes – and in none of them was there much congressional oversight at all, let alone pre-approval. The lawmakers' examination of the operations against the Miami, Shawnee, Creek, Seminole and others came only after the fact.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a leading voice in the Tea Party and in the effort to defeat the Syria measure, is arguing that the president can act without congressional authority only if the country is facing a the threat of an attack, which is in line with the spirit of the War Powers Act (Mr. Adler's military offensives against Indian tribes, perhaps) but is even more restrictive than the language of the controversial measure, which was passed over Richard Nixon's veto 40 years ago next month.
The other perspective is a brief examination of Dwight Eisenhower's refusal to intervene in Indochina in 1954, after the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu. In this piece, appearing on the website of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Frank quotes the diary of James Hagerty, Eisenhower's press secretary: "The president said that if we were to put one combat soldier into Indochina, then our entire prestige would be at stake, not only in that area but throughout the world." And so the debate, which has riveted the nation and perhaps much of the world, continues, building to this week's fateful votes. The early word was that the president would prevail in the Senate but faced a difficult challenge in the House. What is certain is that the usual coalitions aren't relevant. Mr. Obama lacks support from some Democratic colleagues regarded as his reliably liberal allies, the ones who championed his health-care initiative. Conversely, he has the support of some Republicans seldom in his corner.
That, too, has a precedent. Franklin Roosevelt wanted to purge conservative Democrats from the party during peacetime but found that they gave him surprising and indispensable support in the run-up to the Second World War. On the battlefield, war is famously unpredictable. On the floor of America's legislative chambers this week, it is even more so.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.