There are a number of obvious differences between last week’s vote in Parliament and the forthcoming Congressional vote on Syria. But today when he gave his closing statement at the end of the G20 summit, Barack Obama highlighted another very interesting divergence in the way he is approaching the vote. Asked whether he understood the concerns of members of Congress who will have to vote against the will of their constituents, Obama replied:
‘Now with respect to Congress and how they should respond to constituency concerns, I do consider part of my job to help make the case and to explain to the American people exactly why I think this is the right thing to do. And it’s conceivable that at the end of the day I don’t persuade a majority of the American people that it’s the right thing to do.
‘And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide if I think it’s the right thing to do for America’s national security, and the world’s national security, how do I vote? And you know what, that’s what you’re supposed to do as a member of Congress. Ultimately, you listen to your constituents, but you’ve also got to make some decisions about what you believe is right for America. And that’s the same for me as President of the United States. There are a whole bunch of decisions that I make that are unpopular, as you well know.’
He added that in some situations America had intervened in conflict when voters had disagreed, such as the Second World War, and that maybe it might not have been popular to intervene in Rwanda had the genocide there been taking place today.
One of the interesting elements of last week’s Commons defeat was the way MPs thought it more important to vote in line with public opinion than back the Prime Minister. Peter Lilley’s fascinating feature in this week’s magazine charts the welcome rise of the public in parliamentary decision-making – and the difficult consequences that this has for the executive. But Obama’s argument today was more along the lines of Burke’s argument that members of Parliament are elected to make decisions for the general good, not based on the ‘hasty opinion’ of their local constituents. The President was arguing that politicians should try to prevent constituents forming a hasty opinion that intervention would be about boots on the ground rather than ‘to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons’ through ‘limited and proportionate action’.
Even if you agreed with our leading article last week that this would be a war without a purpose and that Parliament did make the right decision (through a combination of the wrong motives and poor organisation), you might still believe that voters elect MPs to be better informed on foreign policy and other complex issues on their behalf. That’s clearly what Obama thinks, even if he ends up ignoring Congress’ verdict on Syria.Tags: Barack Obama, Syria, UK politics, US politics