The Faction-Builder-in-Chief

This essay is part of a series connecting the principles of the Federalist Papers to contemporary politics. For more, visit The Federalist Today website or Facebook page or follow the project onTwitter.

A week ago, President Obama was on the verge of unilaterally ordering U.S. air strikes against Syria. Why did he change his mind and instead seek congressional approval? Did he fear the constitutional implications of going to war without the backing of the American people’s elected representatives?

No. In his words: “As commander-in-chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security. I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress.”

Satirical artist Kaya Mar poses for photographs with his painting of G-20 leaders as he attends a protest organized by the Stop the War coalition against any U.S. military intervention in Syria, outside the U.S. embassy in London. Photo Credit: Matt Dunham/AP

Why then have Congress deliberate on the matter of air strikes against Syria at all? Because he knows that there will be no real debate. Instead, with the assistance of fawning American elites, he hopes to stage a West Wing-inspired performance of Richard III in which the progressive protagonist turns our herd-like elected representatives into agents of their own political demise, at the cost to the country, yet again, of a further drift from constitutional republicanism.

The president’s game is much more about defeating his political enemies at home than defeating America’s enemies abroad. Does anyone doubt that he would stridently oppose an identical intervention in identical circumstances by a President Mitt Romney? Or that a still-Senator John Kerry would have been “troubled” by any one or all of a hundred details of such a President Romney’s identical diplomacy?In the short term, the President aims to protect as many Democratic Congressional seats as possible in the 2014 mid-term election by making as many Republicans as possible own his intervention. Or, alternatively, have them to blame if Congress demurs. In the long run, the President and his allies aim to undermine the credibility of those who dissent from the overall Progressive vision of a homogenized world, absent national, local, and personal differences, led by a transnational elite.

Since the end of the Cold War, the establishment foreign policy elites have too often substituted name-calling and scaremongering for serious argument concerning foreign affairs, despite the many strategic ambiguities of the era. Those who oppose an intervention approved by this class must be “isolationists”; the alternative to action must be complicity in oppression or genocide. One’s foreign policy I.Q. is measured by one’s ability to insert, Mad Lib-like, key phrases like “exit strategy,” “international community,” “credible threat,” and, now, “red line” into stale declamations affirming the most conventional of “wisdom.”

Of course, the post-nationalists don’t always favor intervention—plenty of very bad regimes have gone and continue to go about their nefarious business with impunity (like Sudan). But when they decide (however they do it) that this is a case that can’t be ignored, all must draw the line in exactly the same place or be relegated to the outer edges of political respectability.

Which means that the script is always changing. When the anti-interventionist banner suited his political purposes in 2002 regarding an invasion of Iraq, then rising-star Obama could  argue:

I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

A congressman who substituted “attack on Syria” for “invasion of Iraq” would have the last sentence of a speech against the president’s position today–and find himself opposed by a Secretary of State and Secretary of War that until practically yesterday considered Bashar al-Assad the sort of Middle East “reformer” the United States could work with. Words in these debates are always available. Cheap.

Nothing illustrates this more than President Obama’s denial on Wednesday that he had ever drawn a “red line” for Syria. In a moment worthy of an Orwell novel, the president claimed that the people of the world had drawn a red line in collectively judging the use of chemical weapons immoral; that the nations of the world had drawn a red line in approving a treaty forbidding their use; that the Congress (actually the Senate) had drawn a red line in ratifying that treaty.

But the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the free world? It seems he is the one person who had no part in it. Except that he did when he announced it in the run-up to the presidential election, when it appeared politically expedient to pose as the tough enforcer of the conscience of the world.

The worst part of the President’s claim isn’t its patent absurdity, but the contempt it shows for his office. Is there nothing better for the president to do during a foreign policy crisis than play political games?

He has admitted that he actually believes his own . . . hooey. Media friends might chant his talking points. The bipartisan establishment might rally ‘round his flag. Court historians may one day pin every problem of his presidency on narrow-minded, partisan Republicans. In other words, he may continue to live the charmed political life of one who has escaped responsibility for everything that has ever gone wrong on his watch–and gotten more than enough credit for even the slimmest of successes.

But an illusion, even one that all the right-thinking people “see,” is still an illusion: the emperor still has no clothes. Even if President Obama never has to cry “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” what about the many real people left behind on the battlefield, metaphorical or otherwise? What about those waiting longer than necessary for their next job; the now part-time worker for whom Obamacare mostly means less income; the people on all sides of foreign conflicts who can’t afford to ignore what the American president says, but who can’t figure out what he actually means?

If the highest purpose in politics was winning political battles and maintaining the illusions of alternative realities, James Madison would not have needed to write Federalist 10. There would be no problem of faction (self-serving political groups) to try to solve or ameliorate. We would only need tips on building and maintaining factions–and Niccolo Machiavelli had covered that ground well enough two and a half centuries before.

Madison wrote Federalist 10, however, because justice is the end of politics, and factions are the enemies of justice.

While Madison hoped that the “extent and proper structure” of the Union under the Constitution would make it difficult for factions to get control of the government, he added an equally important moral condemnation of every factious “improper or wicked project”–providing a brief list of examples, every one of which is part of the Progressive playbook.

The Progressive movement, as conceived by its founders a century ago, explicitly embraces factious behavior–the pursuit of personal gain by those it considers to have been the victims of the impersonal market or an unsentimental nature.  Their attempt to wipe out all differences ironically encourages individuals to dwell on their differences and turn them into grievances imposed by their fellow citizens, recast as personal enemies.

This explains many of the common tropes of President Obama’s speech-making. Mix two ad hominem attacks on one’s opponents, one straw man caricature of their position, and a few “let me be clear”s at the end of a wagging finger. Deliver it all with a tone of Pharisaical judgment, and you have a faux eloquence the best and brightest on MSNBC will applaud.

The arguments aren’t intellectually persuasive–no one really believes, for example, that unfeeling businesses, doctors, and hospitals have wrecked our healthcare system–but they are emotionally powerful, dividing the political world into two groups: the personal adherents of the speaker and those who wish to harm them.

We are naturally concerned about the consequences of the Syrian civil war for both the people of the Middle East and for our fellow citizens. But whatever the wisdom or folly of intervention, pursuing a “just and lasting peace” in the political civil war here at home is our most vital interest. In other words Mr. President, quit the Citizen Genet act, your primary responsibility as Commander-in-Chief of the United States is to more perfectly secure our Union.

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