Just say 'No' on Syria -- and start a new American century

You always knew that President Obama was going to go down in history. He clinched that, of course, even before he took the oath of office, on that remarkable nippy night in November 2008 when a handsome young senator and his telegenic family waved to a throng in Chicago's Grant Park, fulfilling a giant slice of Dr, King's dream by becoming America's first black chief executive.

But it's becoming increasingly clear that Obama's actual presidency will become historic for something else -- and unfortunately it won't be because of Obama's leadership, his courage or his savvy. When Congress fails to approve a military strike against Syria this week -- a nearly foregone conclusion at this point -- it will mark a bloodless revolution, the beginning of the collapse of the national security state. In a weird way, the president's dithering -- and his one good decision along the way -- helped hasten a long overdue development. Talk about leading from behind!

For members of Congress, a "no" vote on striking Syria is a must. Unless you've been in a football-induced coma these last few days, you know that Obama -- under pressure to sound tougher on the bloodshed in Syria's two-year civil war, perhaps mindful of this -- called any chemical weapons attack ordered by the dictator Bashir al-Assad a "red line" for the U.S. Yet it certainly seems there was such an attack last month. Obama appeared ready to push the button but -- after watching the British Parliament nix UK involvement -- the president made a Sorkin-esque Friday night decision to seek congressional approval.

It's not an easy decision. I personally agree -- at times -- with the argument that the international community can and should intervene militarilty to stop genocide. There are times when that's been done -- like in Bosnia and, albeit in a muddled way, more recently in Libya -- and other times when it should have been done and wasn't, like Rwanda in the 1990s. But there needs to be a kind of perfect storm for these operations to make sense, and in Syria the elements are sorely lacking.

Neither the public nor, reportedly, the members of Congress in its closed-door briefings has  seen -- pardon the expression -- "slam dunk" evidence that the attack was ordered by Assad (as opposed to rogue field commanders) or possibly even carried out by rebels who clearly are not (to steal another phrase) the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers. No one knows what comes next after the missiles reign down on Syria, other than that the wretched Assad will still be in power and could be emboldened by that to widen the war, not shrink it. Which would be a disaster for the world.

It's clear now after nearly five years of Obama that the president is heavily invested in a center-left domestic agenda that he thinks he'll screw up if if he gets portrayed as a "weak liberal" on foreign and military affairs. Thus, he's given us warmed-over Republicans like Robert Gates at the Pentagon, a drone-strike program that goes beyond Dick-Cheney-esque, and a "surge" of troops in Afghanistan. In Syria, he's looking to follow that playbook -- and he's got America's two closest allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, begging for him to get involved.

Then there's the Arab Spring. Since George W. Bush's second term, we've been encouraging democracy in the Middle East while still wanting to control how things turn out. That's kind of nuts. I can't help but think that some of the Syrian posturing is a response to our inability to prevent or at least control the military coup in Egypt. Now, provoked by the horror of war crimes in Syria, the Obama administration is eager to "project power" in the region. Which is a high-fallutin' way of saying that we would fire missiles at their country, blow up buildings, and kill people by burning them or crushing them.

In the last generation, this is what projecting power has come to mean for the United States. Not winning international support through the strength and clarity of our ideas or through our economic might, which has declined steadily even as a handful of hedge-fund types became billionaires. From Iraq to Yemen to now possibly Syria, U.S. might has come to be defined by lobbing missiles at people from ships hundreds of miles away or from unmanned death robots in the sky. That doesn't really sound very powerful, when you come to think about it. Yet this militaristic monster of the post-orlld War II national security state has seemed beyond the ability power of anyone -- even a former nuclear freeze advocate named Barack Obama -- to reverse.

Until this week.

An expected "no" vote in Congress could be the beginning of a real turnaround for our American experiement. It will mean that the will of the American people -- who overwhelmingly opposes an attack on Syria -- against an unwise foreign entanglement will be voiced through Congress, exactly as the founders intended. And so even though Obama will be rebuffed on Syria, he will have established a badly needed precedent of seeking legislative backing before using military force. 

What's more, the vote will cement something that was already underway  because the wave of revelations about illegal and unwarranted government snooping by the National Security Agency and other agencies -- a new politics of civil liberties in which the old gridlocked paradigm of left and right are melting away before our eyes. On Syria and the NSA, Tea Party conservatives and progressives have finally found common cause -- on authority run amok. As a result, we are watching a morally decrepit center of Big Money and income inequality on the brink of collapse, and not a moment too soon.

There are many wild cards here. The biggest one is President Obama, who could decide to bomb Syria anyway -- and plant the seeds of his own impeachment, which would be a divisive, drawn-out disaster for our country. Also, it will be imperative for progressives to lead America to a better place on issues like implementing health care reform or combating climate change with a politically weakened Obama in the White House, and that will be quite a difficult feat.

But I think this country has a llot to gain by admitting that it's finally -- 13 years into a new millennium -- starting a new American century, that the age of increasingly knee-jerk imperialism that defined the 20th Century is over, dead and buried in the sands of the Middle East. Around the world, economies are flourishing both in the West and in the developing world in nations that don't intervene in every civil war, not matter how gruesome. We can be like they are, by turning inward, by building classrooms and not cruise missiles, training the next generation of Americans to outsmart the world...but not conquer it.

Congress can jump-start our national transformation by just saying "no" on Syria this week. And President Obama? He can lead, follow, or get out of the way.