It appears the White House is poised for a military strike against Syria, though it still offers no timetable or decision. The justification for this potential action, as put by the White House statement on the matter, is use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. The statement says that “The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons… is a red line for the United States, as there has long been an established norm within the international community against the use of chemical weapons.”
This reasoning is contentious, according to polls such as this one by NBC. The American people want Congress to approve military action, and are divided on whether or not we should intervene at all. After all, what weapons Syrians use on each other in a civil war doesn’t seem to endanger or concern American lives, though Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claims the use of these weapons “is a national security threat to the United States.”
Though potential unilateral military action by a President without Congressional approval is shocking to many Americans, the mentality behind it has been evident for a century. Leading up to American involvement in World War One, Woodrow Wilson gave a speech on unrestricted U-boat warfare used by Germany. In it, Wilson quotes the U.S. Government’s statement to Germany, which espouses “the sacred and indisputable rules of international law and the universally recognized dictates of humanity.” Though he mentions the loss of American lives, Wilson deliberately states that “We wish to serve no selfish ends.”
This idea of America’s responsibility for upholding international law and universal humanity fits in with ideas of government intervention. FDR’s Commonwealth Club Address, though a speech concerning domestic policy, serves to explain the connection between progressive government and foreign policy. He argues that government intervention is no longer a threat to freedom, but rather a protector of it: “Where Jefferson had feared the encroachment of political power on the lives of individuals, Wilson knew that the new power was financial.” Government, once fearful, is now the protector of individuals from things like financial oppression.
This brings our nation to Syria. When the desire to uphold international law and universal standards supersedes the government’s responsibility to its own people, and that is combined with the idea that government intervention is a force for good, we arrive at our current situation. Obama does not need Congressional approval because there should be, in his view, no checks to executive intervention for the sake of what he deems important. The government is the force of good in the world and its own country. He must take action because it is the right action, law and tradition be damned.
As government creeps more toward infallibility, so it descends into tyranny.