President Obama convened his war council over the weekend to weigh possible military action in Syria. The meeting came less than 24 hours after CBS News reported that the Pentagon was making initial preparations for a cruise missile attack on Syrian government forces.
NBC political reporter Chuck Todd suggested that the administration “appears to be debating WHAT military action to take against Syria. Not really debating IF anymore.” The deliberations come after widespread reports that the Syrian regime crossed the “red line” of chemical weapons use.
A White House statement released to the New York Times and other media outlets averred, “based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”
Barack Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 for a core reason: he stood up to his party’s hawks and opposed Iraq War while Hillary Clinton did not. He won the presidency in part because he represented a break from George W. Bush’s foreign policy while his opponent John McCain doubled down on it.
Even as late as last year, the foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney was by most accounts Obama’s strongest. And why shouldn’t it have been? He was debating as the incumbent president who struck back against Osama bin Laden and wound down the war in Iraq.
Yet Obama had little to lose when he spoke out against “dumb wars” as a state senator representing a liberal Illinois district and facing a Democratic primary in less than two years. Hillary, by contrast, was a sitting senator with access to her husband’s neoliberal national security advisers and visions of the Persian Gulf War dancing in her head.
Obama has not been as firm in standing up to liberal hawks since residing in the White House. Even his legacy of withdrawing from his predecessor’s wars is complicated. He initiated a half-heartedly Bushian surge in Afghanistan and his administration negotiated to maintain forces in Iraq after the withdrawal deadline, pulling the last of the troops out only after the Iraqis failed to agree to U.S. terms.
The only lesson Obama seems to have learned from Iraq is that large, expensive military occupations with American casualties are politically unpopular. The long-term, unintended consequences of regime change and the question of whether we are arming people today who will shoot us tomorrow do not seem to have left much of an impression.
Thus we have an air war that dare not speak its name in Libya and we may lob some missiles at sites in Syria. Both military interventions are more like Bill Clinton’s in Kosovo than Bush’s in Baghdad. But the Kosovo Liberation Army was not clearly our friend, and the rebel forces vying for power in Libya and Syria are shot through with Islamists. Weapons approved for Libyan rebels have already fallen into the hands of jihadists.
Similarly, domestic drone strikes don’t raise the same kind of domestic political questions are military invasions. But they do create collateral damage. Are they killing more terrorists than they are creating? Not even Donald Rumsfeld pretends to know.
Meanwhile, the wing of the Democratic Party that continues to resist civil liberties violations now that Obama is president is only somewhat larger—and no more effective—than the Republicans who stood up to Dubya’s domestic spending.
And as is the case with domestic spending, the pressure to Do Something is overwhelming. Politically, debates skew in favor of the liberals at home and hawks abroad. Even The Onion got into the act with a headline chiding the president for inaction on Syria: “Obama Deeply Concerned After Syrians Gassed to Death on White House Lawn.”
The hawks baying for wider wars and quicker military responses are unsatisfied by the tepid support that follows bouts of presidential hand-wringing. But from Egypt to Syria, the half-hearted interventionist can still produce disastrous long-term results. And most Americans continue to oppose military action. Obama will nevertheless assure the public that his actions will be limited and carefully calibrated.
Quite an asterisk will accompany Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. The president who sought to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may quietly start new ones in Syria and beyond.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?