The plans being floated by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for a wildly unpopular military intervention in Syria are incoherent on any number of levels. Rather than identify an enemy and seek the enemy’s defeat, the essential requirement for using military force, the Administration is unwilling to declare the toppling of the Assad regime as a goal – despite Obama’s own proclamation two years ago this month that “[f]or the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Instead, according to one unnamed “U.S. official” quoted by the LA Times, the Administration wants a military strike “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Churchillian, this is not.
That Was Then, This Is Now
Nor is it in line with what Obama, Biden and Kerry used to claim to believe. Once upon a time, Obama’s expressed willingness to meet with leaders like Assad made him popular in Syria. Then-Senator Obama argued in the 2008 campaign that “[t]he President does not have 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” (Senator Biden agreed); now, as in Libya, Obama has no interest in asking for Congressional approval. Obama and Kerry once venerated the need to get UN and international approval for the use of force; now, Kerry’s spokesman says of the UN Security Council, where both Russia and China are expected to oppose military strikes, “[w]e cannot be held up in responding by Russia’s intransigence.” Obama is apparently gunshy of even explaining himself: one of his reliable proxies at Politico asks, “[i]s POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.”
(UPDATE: Here’s more from Obama in 2007 sounding a very different note on Syria, and John Kerry cozying up to Assad as recently as 2011-2012).
From Bad To Worse
There are many good reasons to wish to be rid of the brutal Assad regime, long an Iranian proxy, sponsor of Hezbollah, supporter of the insurgency against the U.S. in Iraq, shelterer (and maybe backer) of culprits in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines, oppressor of Lebanon and assassin of its prime minister, enemy of Israel and perpetrator of serial massacres against its own people. But it seems increasingly likely that the alternatives to Assad would be even worse, ranging from domination of Syria by Al Qaeda and its Sunni extremist allies to splintering into an anarchic failed state. As it stands, the Syrian civil war is a proxy battle between Assad’s backers (Iran and Russia) and the backers of the rebel resistance (Saudi Arabia and Turkey). It doesn’t need more combatants who intend to show up, lob in a bunch of missiles and leave without resolving anything, and for the U.S. to control the post-Assad situation to our advantage would require a huge and for many reasons infeasible commitment of ground troops. We did that in Iraq in part so we would not have to do it again every time there was an opportunity to topple a dictator in the Greater Middle East – we can leave the locals to resolve these things themselves. Recent experiences in Egypt and Libya show that the public in the region hungers for change and a greater voice in how their countries are governed, but hardly inspire confidence that the results will be less anti-American or more respectful of individual liberty. The fact that Syria affects the interests of the U.S. and its allies does not mean that we currently have any options on the table that would advance those interests.
The sole peg on which Obama’s Administration and its apologists rest the defensibility of a halfway military strike is the idea that Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons against his own people – just as Saddam Hussein once did. In my view, this is misguided as a sole casus belli: the problem of rogue regimes is the regimes, not their choice of weaponry. That was true in Iraq and it’s true now, and in particular it’s a ridiculous argument coming from the same people who told us that this was no justification for the Iraq War. It’s consistent with the idea that the problem of gun crime is guns, not criminals – another of this Administration’s pet delusions. In fact, it does not even appear that the Administration can assure that its planned strikes would disarm Assad of the weapons in question. We apparently plan to shoot at the king but carefully avoid killing him.
The Actual Obama Record on Iraq
Of course, say Obama’s defenders, the reason to oppose the Iraq War was that Iraq was not a threat because it had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That’s an easy enough argument (if not entirely accurate) to make in retrospect, but contrary to his myth-making, it’s not even what Obama himself argued at the time. Given that these parallels will be hashed out repeatedly in the coming Syria debate, and given that the case for intervention in Syria rests heavily on the credibility of the president and the Secretary of State, it’s worth recalling what Obama actually said when the Iraq War debates were happening.
Obama’s record on the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 basically consists of one 2002 speech criticizing the war and a 2003 interview with The Nation in which he framed the issue in purely domestic political terms:
“Blacks are not willing to feel obliged to support the president’s agenda,” explains Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. “They are much more likely to feel that (Bush) is engaging in disruptive policies at home and using the war as a means of shielding himself from criticism on his domestic agenda.”
There’s no recorded instance of Obama in 2002 or 2003 arguing that Saddam did not have WMD; rather, Obama’s 2002 speech contended that the Iraqi dictator did still have the weapons he had already used against his own people a decade before, but that this was no justification for war:
Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.
He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.
…You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.
This was wrong for a number of reasons, but apply the reasoning to Assad today: his regime is barely clinging to power. In 2004, running for the Senate, Obama would no longer even say that he would have voted against the Iraq war, noting that he had not had access to the classified intelligence that convinced nearly everyone who examined it of Saddam’s WMD programs:
[I]n interviews around [mid-2004], Obama refused to say flatly that he would have voted against the 2002 congressional war resolution. “I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports,” Obama told The New York Times on July 26. “What would I have done? I don’t know. What I know is that, from my vantage point, the case was not made.” In other interviews that week, Obama said, “[T]here is room for disagreement” over initiating the war, and that “I didn’t have the information that was available to senators.”
Obama later justified these comments as an effort to avoid a split with his party’s presidential ticket: Both John Kerry and John Edwards had voted for the war, after all. Yet this explanation was undermined when Obama repeated the point more than two years later. “I’m always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought [the war] was such a bad idea was that I didn’t have the benefit of U.S. intelligence,” he told The New Yorker’s David Remnick in October 2006. “And, for those that did, it might have led to a different set of choices.”
(Kerry, of course, is now the man Obama put front and center in leading his Syria policy). In 2004, speaking of Iraq, Obama told the Chicago Tribune, “[t]here’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage,” and Obama denied at the time that he had ever called for withdrawal from Iraq.
Eventually, of course, Obama would oppose the “surge” and call for a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by March 31, 2008, a policy that would have been catastrophic. (Similarly, since taking office, Obama has resisted the pursuit of victory in Afghanistan – Obama seems not so much to be anti-war as anti-victory). That was a shrewd bit of positioning for the 2008 Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom had voted for the Iraq War, and it came only after the 2006 elections had proven the vote-drawing appeal of attacking the Iraq War.
It’s OK When I Do It
The lesson of both Obama’s and Kerry’s history of criticism of the Iraq War (Kerry, you will recall, voted for the war after voting against the original Persian Gulf War on the theory that the first President Bush hadn’t assembled a large enough coalition) is that it was primarily driven by partisan opposition to George W. Bush, rather than any particular principled view of how to run American foreign policy. In that light, it is perhaps unsurprising that the arguments made against Bush have been discarded and forgotten, just as all but a tiny minority of the anti-war movement has been silent on Obama’s Libyan and Syrian adventures (and the internet chorus that branded Bush and Cheney as “chickenhawks” has been silent on Obama’s and Biden’s lack of military service). But being in charge requires more than just blind partisanship, and five years into his presidency, Obama seems lost in formulating an approach to the use of military force that makes any sort of coherent sense.