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Dionne: Will political polarization cripple the nation?

  • (DREW SHENEMAN / Newark Star-Ledger)

It was only a matter of time before our polarized politics threatened to destroy a president's authority and call into question our country's ability to act in the world. Will Congress let that happen?

To raise this is not to denigrate those, left and right, who deeply believe that the United States should temper its international military role. Nor is it to claim that President Barack Obama's proposed strikes on Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons constitute some sort of “slam dunk” policy that should win automatic assent. But a bitter past hangs over this debate and could overwhelm a discussion of what's actually at stake.

The wretched experience of Iraq is leading many Democrats to see Obama's intervention in Syria as little different from what came before. Never mind that the evidence of Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people is far clearer than the evidence was about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or that Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up to now.

It's a paradox: While hawks criticize Obama for not being willing to act boldly enough against Assad, doves criticize him for being too willing to risk a wider war. Members of Obama's party have to understand the risks of forcing him to walk away from a red line that he drew for good reason.

At the same time, Democrats will never forget how their patriotism and fortitude were questioned when they challenged President George W. Bush on Iraq and other post-9/11 policies. Yes, Bush did sign a fundraising letter before the 2006 midterm election that spoke of Democrats “who will wave the white flag of surrender in the global war on terror and deny the tools needed to achieve victory.” At a campaign event that year, he said of Democrats: “It sounds like they think the best way to protect the American people is to wait until we're attacked again.”

I bring this up only to remind Republicans opposing Obama on Syria — and I'm not talking about the consistent anti-interventionist libertarians — that some in their party are making arguments now that they condemned Democrats for making not very long ago. Can we ever break this cycle of recrimination?

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