Repeat: Barack Obama is not George W. Bush, and Syria is not Iraq
The way some folks on the left have been screeching about President Obama’s proposal to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, you’d think he had personally led the United States and its allies into a pointless and costly war of aggression against Iraq based on dubious and even fabricated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.
Look, I’ll admit I have no idea whether the limited military strikes the president is proposing will deter Bashar al-Assad from committing further atrocities against his own people. I’m not sold on the plan. I would like more details, and I would like to hear from the military and outside experts. I think Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval is the right one, even if it is a break with precedent dating back to the Korean War and earlier. But he needs to make a better case to the American people, not just that his cause is right, but that his objectives are reasonable and achievable.
But whatever my doubts, I am absolutely certain of two things: Barack Obama is not George W. Bush, and Syria is not Iraq.
Bush, Cheney and the neocons in charge of foreign policy in their administration were looking for any excuse to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein from day one, and 9/11 gave them a convenient pretext. The Bushies’ claim that Hussein had stockpiles of WMDs and ties to Al Qaeda proved laughably false.
Obama is no neocon. He has no grand vision calling for the Untied States to use force to remake the Middle East in our image. Assad’s regime not only admits that it possesses chemical and biological weapons, it has threatened to use them. Syria’s ties to the terrorist group Hezbollah are not a matter of conjecture, but fact. Indeed, Hezbollah fighters have joined Assad’s forces in combat against Syria’s rebels.
For more than two years, Obama resisted calls from hawks such as Sens. John McCain and Graham Lindsey to intervene in Syria, despite mounting evidence of Assad’s brutality against Syria’s civilian population. He reluctantly agreed earlier this summer to provide the rebels with small arms, but only after the administration became convinced that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against the insurgents. Obama has also moved cautiously on Syrian patron Iran, favoring economic sanctions over saber rattling and ignoring demands by Israel and its U.S. supporters in both parties for a more aggressive military posture toward Tehran.
Unlike Bush, who couldn’t explain the difference between a Shi’ite and a Sunni if his life depended on it (and sadly, the lives of many Iraqis and Americans did) Obama is a student of Middle East history and is well aware of the tragic legacy left by western meddling in the region. Listen to his interviews and speeches on the subject, and it is clear that unlike his predecessor, Obama actually knows more about the region and its myriad conflicts than most American journalists and pundits.
Obama campaigned for and won the presidency in part based of his opposition to the Iraq War, a conflict he called a “dumb war.” But he has never embraced pacifism or isolationism. In fact, he promised to double down on the war in Afghanistan and to pursue Al Qaeda and its allies wherever they may be. He did both during his first term. He also stuck to a timeline established under Bush to remove U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and set a deadline of December 2014 to pull U.S. combat forces out of Afghanistan. The American troop drawdown continues on track. Even the number of Obama’s oft-criticized drone strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan and Yemen has declined sharply.
In short, the administration has been seeking to disengage, militarily, from the Middle East, not become embroiled in new conflicts. Strife in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries is an annoying distraction at a time when the White House is preoccupied with implementing Obama’s signature health care law, winning congressional passage of immigration reform and preventing a government shutdown or debt default later this year.
Some claim Obama invited this distraction when he said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” and that if Assad crossed it the U.S. would intervene militarily. Critics complain that Obama “boxed himself in” with these comments. I disagree. First, Obama didn’t just volunteer a position out of the blue. He made the comments in response to a specific question at a press conference in August 2012 about whether the U.S. military shouldn’t go into Syria preemptively to secure Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons:
Q Mr. President, could you update us on your latest thinking of where you think things are in Syria, and in particular, whether you envision using U.S. military, if simply for nothing else, the safe keeping of the chemical weapons, and if you’re confident that the chemical weapons are safe?
. . . .
THE PRESIDENT: I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
Q So you’re confident it’s somehow under — it’s safe?
THE PRESIDENT: In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident. What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
Second, Obama didn’t commit unequivocally to the use of military force. He said the use of chemical weapons would result in unspecified “consequences.” That could mean anything from economic sanctions to seeking a U.N. resolution for military action (an admittedly futile gesture now given Russia’s full-throated support for genocide in Syria).
Third and most importantly, what was Obama supposed to say? Should he have simply admitted that the American people are too war weary after 12 years of military conflict and feeling too burned by Bush’s lies to give a fuck about WMDs anymore? Should he have said that the U.S. has no strategic stake in keeping 5-year-olds from being gassed to death in their sleep? Would a headline like “Obama to Assad: “Gas ‘em All; See if We Care” have inspired more confidence in the president’s leadership?
Bush launched a full-scale invasion and occupation of Iraq that lasted almost nine years. Obama says that he has no interest in an open-ended military commitment in Syria, and his record gives us no reason to doubt his word.
With so many commentators suffering from what my BigSlice.org colleague David Phillips has labeled “Iraq Tourette’s”), people seem to have already forgotten Libya (which is odd, because so many Fox News talking heads who couldn’t tell Libya from Luxembourg on a map can’t go 24 hours without saying “Benghazi” at least a dozen times). In March 2011, with Col. Gaddafi’s forces advancing on Benghazi and Gaddafi threatening to “show no mercy” to the city’s 700,000 inhabitants, Obama ordered U.S. forces to join an attack on Libya’s military. He promised that the U.S. role would be limited and that he would not put American ground troops into Libya.
Voices on the Left predicted an Iraq-style quagmire and pilloried Obama for lacking an exit strategy. But Obama kept his promises to limit the U.S. role and let NATO take charge of the operation (despite derisive remarks from others about him “leading from behind”). The conflict ended seven months later with a rebel victory and no U.S casualties. So much for that “quagmire.” Mea culpas from the pundits who got it wrong? Hah! Fat chance of that.
Is intervention legal as a matter of international law? Maybe not. The U.S. and its NATO allies intervened in Kosovo in 1999 in the absence of a United Nations mandate or a colorable claim of self-defense, thus taking the action outside the strictures of the U.N. Charter. NATO and the Clinton administration justified the bombing on the grounds that it was necessary to prevent a humanitarian disaster, and the U.N. Security Council was hamstrung by veto threats from Russia and China. Though not intended as a precedent for future humanitarian interventions, it arguably is one. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo called the operation “illegal, yet legitimate.” I imagine Obama might be okay with a similar judgment about the legality of intervention in Syria, if it succeeded in saving lives.
Pessimism about the prospects for a successful military intervention is one thing. But cynicism is another. Some pundits have questioned Obama’s motives for pursuing intervention in Syria, suggesting he needs to save face because of his “red line” comments or that he is “wagging the dog,” trying to divert attention from recent revelations about the NSA. Uh, yeah, because embarking on a military action opposed by 80% or more of voters is sure to boost his poll numbers.
What about oil? Syria is not a major player in world oil markets. It ranks thirty-second in daily oil production, right behind Australia. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not persuaded that the U.S. (ranked number three and expected to climb to the number one spot in a few years) is eager to go to war to grab Syria’s oil.
As for saving face, I honestly think Obama couldn’t care less. He has retreated from “red lines” before, on taxes, on the stimulus, on health care, each time incurring the wrath of his base to cut a deal and achieve palpable policy results. Besides, now that he has submitted the question of whether to punish Assad to Congress, Obama has preemptively shifted the blame for undermining U.S. credibility to lawmakers should they vote against intervention. (I have to confess to no small amount of amusement at the prospect of John McCain and Lindsey Graham lecturing their GOP colleagues that they have to choose to either stand with the Democratic president they all hate or with Syria, Hezbollah and their Iranian sponsors.)
I’ve never understood why so many liberals feel the need to constantly impugn this president’s motives. Are Obama’s critics so certain of that they are right about Syria that Obama’s position can only be understood if it is seen as rooted in self interest or even vanity?
Democrats took offense when some Republicans suggested that Clinton was “wagging the dog” by ordering the bombing of Iraq in 1998 in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But now Obama’s integrity is fair game on the Left? Bubba is allowed his regrets over his failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda, but Barack’s a war mongering bastard for wanting to try, however imperfectly, to avert a similar disaster in Syria?
I call Bullshit.