When politicians do things they previously condemned, the perceived hypocrisy can invite both unfair conclusions and unwise policy. Sexual indiscretion may be a bipartisan sport, but a straying family-values Republican simply is going to be judged more harshly than, say, a progressive president whose frequent “bimbo eruptions” elicited more jokes than shame.
That same principle should apply – but so far hasn't – to politicians who have accused predecessors of usurping authority by going to war without congressional approval.
Is it possible to be hypocritical about hypocrisy? Yes, if the Obama-Biden administration follows through on its threat bomb Syria without the support of the House, Senate or the American people.
Leaving aside for the moment the wisdom or necessity of engaging in yet another Mid-East war and the fact that Republicans, too, have gone to war without Congress' support, including Ronald Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada and 1986 bombing of Libya (which he justified as protecting Americans and avenging a terrorist bombing), the uncomfortable fact is that both the president and vice president have explicitly opposed the very course they now advocate.
That doesn't necessarily mean they were wrong then and right now, or vice versa – but it does indicate that national-security issues are far more politically complex and morally ambiguous than voters often are led to believe by naively self-righteous candidates.
In 2007, for example, then-Sen. Joe Biden insisted President George Bush should be impeached if he attacked Iran without congressional authorization. That same year, Obama told a reporter that the president “does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
But not even Obama and Biden argue, as Reagan did, that American lives are at stake. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons against his own people, Obama has implied, crossed a “red line” that justifies a military response.
Perhaps, but that's where things get complicated.
George W. Bush, who was excoriated on the left for, among other things, his invasion of Iraq, did at least secure Congress' support beforehand. It is a matter of record that the House authorized action by a 296-133 vote on Oct. 10, 2002, with the Senate doing likewise the following day by a 77-23 margin, Biden voting with the majority.
Much of the backlash against the war resulted from the failure to find Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, which had been one of the chief articles in the Iraq war resolution. But if Assad's use of chemical weapons justifies the use of force now, would it not also have justified the war against Iraq?
After all, it is known that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons not only in his war against Iran (with the approval of the U.S., some allege), but also against Kurdish rebels in 1987, killing thousands.
This is hardly a profound statement, but it is true nevertheless: There never has been, and never will be, a shortage of brutality in the world. If humanitarianism alone justifies war, there will never be peace.
But for all its political opportunism, Obama's 2007 statement about the use of military force was correct: It should be used sparingly, when there is an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
When it's in America's national interest, in other words.
Such talk is often dismissed as jingoistic, nationalistic or downright selfish, but promoting what's best for America is in the end the only thing that can justify the use of the country's finite financial resources and infinitely precious lives. It can be argued, credibly, the saving helpless people from death by poison will strengthen America's position in the Middle East and the world. But it can be argued just as persuasively that the prospect of replacing one tyrant with a government that may be even more radical and hostile to the U.S. is something best avoided.
Either way, it would be nice if those making the interventionist argument now would at least admit that they have more in common with their predecessor than they led supporters to believe, and that the “national interest” should at least in part be debated and defined by the body to whom the Founders entrusted the authority to make war. The fact that some flip-flopping Democrats and gutless Republicans seem desperate to avoid the issue makes a vote even more essential.
About 80 percent of Americans agree, according to an NBC News poll – people who just might be wondering why a president who used to feel the same way has changed his mind about that and many other things now that he's in charge.