Congress Plays with Political Fire…Again

It’s hard out there for a wimp. The 113th U.S. Congress doesn’t waste time proving how inept and ineffective it is and no enemy, foreign or domestic, has changed that.

As President Obama has used executive authority to strike at the heart of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, both House Democrats and Republicans have raised serious and valid concerns over executive power to essentially declare war without declarations from Congress. The founders of the constitution spin in their graves over things like these – they were pretty specific over war declarations. But whether you agree or disagree with the current course of action toward ISIS (personally, I’ve found myself leaning toward the “wipe the bastards out” side), the real issue is – as usual – Congress’ sadly hilarious incompetence.

For a while now, the looming question of U.S. involvement has hung over Mideastern dialogue. Iraq asked us for help in fighting back the spread of ISIS within its own borders. Muslim clerics all over the world – even Saudi freaking Arabia – have harshly denounced ISIS. The world recoiled in collective horror when the Islamic State slaughtered Kurish Yazidis and Iraqi Christians and beheaded journalists on camera.

President Obama joined other leaders in condemning ISIS for what it is: barbaric and bloodthirsty. He was clear about U.S. involvement, too – he wouldn’t act unilaterally until U.S. interests were directly threatened, a cautious approach that is rather refreshing after the Bush Administration. At that moment, House and Senate Democrats got a significant portion of their colleagues to come out in support of congressional debate on the course of action they would authorize the President to take.

And then they convened for recess…for two months.

With the threat of a third Iraq war and more military involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, Congress chose now to go on vacation. I wonder why the public rates them lower than kitchen mold in approval?

With Congress literally out of the picture, President Obama has authorized missile strikes against ISIS. House Republicans’ response: We never got a bill on military action from the White House. Seriously. I’m no expert, but I think it’s the purview of Congress to write bills. Apparently Republicans never watched that one Schoolhouse Rock! video about “the bill on Capitol Hill.”

Congress has become really good at tying the president’s hands. From holding up appointments to passing the least amount of bills in U.S. history, Republican leadership has made it its sole mission to give President Obama headache after headache. They create government crises and then blame the president for government crises. As MSNBC’s Steve Benen pointed out, “congressional Republicans have been almost hysterical about presidential overreach, condemning the White House for alleged abuses that leave Congress out of the policymaking process.” He continues, “In nearly every instance, their evidence has fallen somewhere between baseless and ridiculous.”

It all comes down to politics. Congresspersons and Senators are terrified of being the ones who vote for or against wars (hello, Iraq War 2.0). If you vote for war, it can make you look tough and it pleases neoconservatives and interventionists…but it can also tag your name to a possible boondoggle. If you vote against war, it can make you look like a bleeding heart and please pacifists and isolationists…but it can also make you look weak.

Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) captured the GOP zeitgeist by openly admitting to the New York Times, “We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took [Obama] so long.” In case any of you have forgotten, there’s a midterm election coming up in November.

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21st Century Prophecy

Internationally, times are incredibly tense these days. Syria’s years-long, bloody civil war has recently taken a turn for the worse – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used deadly chemical weapons – banned under international law – on over 1,400 of his own people as a way to cripple rebel forces. Now the United States may use a military strike against Assad to send him a message that such barbarism will not be tolerated anywhere…a message that could very easily become yet another U.S.-involved war in the Middle East. Oh, yeah, and Russia is one of Syria’s most vocal allies.

Naturally, Americans are worried and deeply divided as to what exactly should be done, especially since it’s the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. After warring in the Mid East for over a decade, the American people are weary of the prospect of more war. Most Democrats, Republicans and political independents agree that we should not get involved. Now that Assad has said he will turn over his nation’s chemical weapons to the international community, I expect national public opinion to further sour on the prospect of a military strike.

However, for some, that worry has turned to the to-be-expected belief that this latest episode of turmoil in the Middle East is just another “sign” of the “end times.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with one of fundamentalist Christianity’s favorite obsessions, “end times” refers to the larger eschatological belief that the New Testament book of Revelation contains prophecies written specifically about the modern world. In this worldview, literally every breaking news story about tension in the Middle East is instantly tied to some vague passage of the Bible to support the belief that the “soon” and “coming return” of Jesus Christ may be around the proverbial corner. Ironically, this has been the understanding amongst fundamentalists since the 19th century (Napoleon was once seen as the Antichrist). The fact that these prophecies do not typically outlive the lives of fire-and-brimstone clergymen never seems to sway these fundamentalist believers.

Fox News host Neil Cavuto recently featured a segment on the possible Syria-prophecy connection by interviewing a “scholar” who followed the end times mold to a T. Joel Rosenberg, author of several books on “end times” prophecies, peddled the idea the conflict in Syria was possibly mentioned in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah (because nothing sells books better than the creepy air of possibility…). “…you have seven million Syrians already on the run—two million have left the country; five million are internally displaced,” Rosenberg told Cavuto. “The Jeremiah 49 prophecy says that people will flee, but there’ll still be people in Damascus when the prophecy happens. So the bottom line is we don’t know.” Cavuto was easily convinced and told his viewers, “It’s in there. It’s worth a read.”

Cavuto’s right – it is worth a read. When you read the Old Testament for what it is, a Bronze Age religious document that chronicles stories of conquests, kings and glory (with a lot of genocide, sexism and homophobia, too), you don’t find a secret decoder ring to the modern world. You find numerous examples of tragedy and megalomania. The cycle of civilizations rising, falling, crumbling in on themselves, and overtaking each other all tend to center on fighting, be it over religious superiority/inferiority, natural resources or the throne itself. In the end, these civilizations have all died out, closed off from the rest of the world and new ideas.

It’s not prophecy and mysticism. It’s the darker side of human nature. The only prophecy here is the fact that civilizations are prone to making the same mistakes as their predecessors.

In 2013, communication with anyone on the planet is possible. Ideas, philosophies, popular music, movies and even funny cat memes are shared around the world. With the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, beginning in 2011, it would seem that the region may be able to change for the better. “Secular” culture and ideas, like equality and democracy, are starting to become mainstream. That’s what led to the conflict in Syria in the first place – rebel groups tried to overthrow their authoritarian government. Never before have such revolutionary ideas spread so quickly all over the globe.

one of NASA's most famous images

The world is rapidly changing faster than it ever has before. The “new” is quickly replacing the “old.” National cultures are becoming part of an emerging global culture of shared values and even entertainment. If we are to avoid the rise of powerful and tyrannical dictators like Assad, we must continue to work through diplomacy and international cooperation as well as strategic, economic sanctions. Civil and regional wars usually become international conflicts because the world is so interconnected. It affects us all. Given the weapons of warfare of the 21st century, we should be doing all that we can to avoid armed conflicts.

We have the knowledge and agency to make sure that the oldest prophecy of all, a civilization’s self-destruction, doesn’t happen.