Richard Cohen continues to be unhappy that Obama isn’t flouting public opinion in order to start a new war:
Lawrence of Arabia at least tried to do something. Barack of D.C. just sat on his hands.
Actually, he sat on his polling numbers. The president’s refusal to do anything material to end the Syrian civil war is a policy long suspected of having two elements — fear of blowback and fear of the nightly news. Now comes a book from a one-time administration insider who bluntly and altogether convincingly outlines the role domestic political considerations played in the White House’s approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal of policymakers was “not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.” Syria, it seems, has been no exception.
The Lawrence comparison is intended to be an insult, but the reference is somewhat instructive. One can see the frustration of Lawrence’s hopes as a warning to all foreign idealists with unrealistic ambitions of grand political projects that they cannot guide and “shape” the politics of other nations as easily as they suppose. Of course, Lawrence was acting on behalf of what his government considered to be an important British interest to help undermine a wartime enemy. There are no such considerations for the U.S. or Obama in Syria. The circumstances were dramatically different almost a century ago, and it’s vain to expect similar responses to very different events.
The complaint that Obama is not ignoring the overwhelming majority that doesn’t want the U.S. involved in Syria is truly strange. While interventionists consistently minimize the costs and risks that greater involvement in Syria’s conflict would involve, even they have to know that getting the U.S. entangled in another foreign conflict when the public is heavily against it is a recipe for long-term policy failure. Intervention in Syria lacks political support in the U.S. for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is that most Americans correctly perceive it to be a conflict in which the U.S. has nothing vital at stake. After the last twelve years, another significant military commitment (which is what Cohen has been calling for all along) in a predominantly Muslim country would exhaust the public’s patience very quickly, and it would deplete Obama’s political capital just as fast. Demanding that Obama ignore public opinion in this case is akin to demanding that he consign his second term agenda to oblivion. Personally, I am not concerned whether Obama achieves very much in his second term, but it’s absurd to insist that he risk consuming the rest of his presidency in an unnecessary war that advances no discernible American interest. There is no discussion at all in Cohen’s column of why the U.S. should become ensnared in a Syrian war. If Obama is smart, he’ll continue paying attention to public opinion while ignoring these pleas for intervention in Syria.