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Obama’s Half-Measures to War With Syria

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 [1] 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 [2], “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 [3] 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 [4].

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 [5] 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 [6]. 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? [7]

Follow @jimantle [8]

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Obama’s Half-Measures to War With Syria"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 26, 2013 @ 2:09 am

The President cannot resist the slouch towards war, for just the same reason he has failed to live up to the rest of his speechifying. It is the one he gave, as quoted in The Christian Century, for the failures to reform Wall Street’s rampant and aggravated banksterism: “I would have liked to, but it would have pissed off too many powerful people.”

With recidivist mendacity even more starkly shadowed against the truth in recent surveillance revelations, it seems in doubt that the first part of that excuse is fully true, though the latter assuredly is.

There is simply too much of a revenue stream for donorist elites to give up constant war. The rewards for elusive success are for them a risk-free investment, with losses socialized by the American people and benefits privatized for themselves.

#2 Comment By balconesfault On August 26, 2013 @ 8:45 am

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.

First, he actually campaigned for President in 2008 on his plans to initiate that Bushian surge in Afghanistan, did he not?

Second, the top American commanders in Iraq were pressing hard for the US to retain a force of 10,000 – 15,000 troops in the country for security purposes. Obama scaled that back to negotiating for 3,000 troops – which drew attacks from Republican Congressmen for shorting the request from military brass. Overall, it looks like the administration’s negotiations with the Iraqis on maintaining troops in country was rather half-hearted, intended more to placate conservatives than to actually press al-Maliki into concessions.

The only lesson Obama seems to have learned from Iraq is that large, expensive military occupations with American casualties are politically unpopular.

Kind of an important lesson, don’t you think?

#3 Comment By T. Sledge On August 26, 2013 @ 9:59 am

What we (and the world) needs at this point is a clear thinking president, with a spine, and principles. What we have is an opportunist who seems to operate under the single motivation “which choice is going to make me look good, or at least, come with the smallest amount of risk or ‘pissing off powerful people’ “.

He is such a pathetic disappointment. God, we have to endure another 1,243 days of this man in the WH. And there appears to be little chance of getting anyone of substance after he (mercifully) leaves the WH in 2017.

Hillary Clinton didn’t have the wisdom to choose a capable campaign manager in ’08, and squandered a 16 year lead in public exposure and a quarter of a billion dollars in campaign finance funds in losing the nomination to “this one”. And the GOP is likely to nominate another clueless clown who is completely tone deaf as to what the majority of Americans who don’t belong to the Flat Earth Society want and feel.

I suppose that this is the inevitable result of turning politics into just another branch of the entertainment industry.
Well, is there any Muslim country in the world that we haven’t slighted or insulted? I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

#4 Comment By Clint On August 26, 2013 @ 10:51 am

Americans are witnessing the folly of the interventionist global cop agenda, other than a convenient wag the dog distraction from this administration’s ongoing scandals.

#5 Comment By Northern Observer On August 26, 2013 @ 11:02 am

I would love to see an American journalist of stature, ask the President what provisions the United States Military has made to prevent the massacre of Christians and Alawites once our allies sieze control of Syria.

#6 Comment By Johann On August 26, 2013 @ 11:06 am

I find it hard to believe Assad would have been so stupid as to use chemical weapons when he was already winning, and just as the UN inspectors arrived.

One has to wonder. If its proven that the chemical weapons attack was perpetrated by the rebels, will the US bomb or threaten to bomb the rebels? If not, the administration’s hypocrisy will be laid bare.

US intelligence has NO credibility. Anything they say is pretty much meaningless.

#7 Comment By balconesfault On August 26, 2013 @ 11:15 am

@Fran – I would love to find your quote, but it seems to exist nowhere in the internet-sphere. Could you provide a reference? Even if you’re paraphrasing, the quote is damning enough that it would be useful to have a second opinion as to whether it is an accurate characterization, before it runs too amok? (see Sledge actually citing it to buttress his point)

#8 Comment By Marvin G On August 26, 2013 @ 11:20 am

To assert that “The only lesson Obama seems to have learned from Iraq is that large, expensive military occupations with American casualties are politically unpopular.” Misses a major point. Politically unpopular, of course. But why is that? Because it served no actual purpose nor resulted in a more stable and prosperous Middle East. People are not stupid, nor is it good conservative policy to fan the flames of war as a first resort.

#9 Comment By spite On August 26, 2013 @ 11:33 am

I do not know whats going on in his head, but my guess is that he knows that a Syria involvement would be a very bad mistake. The problem is that his pride and the hawks hovering all around him might push him into this.

#10 Comment By Henri James On August 26, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

He can’t really politically just go totally hands off “not our problem”. So far he’s been pretty smart and limited about it, though there has been missteps.

Until he talks about boots on the ground or no fly zone I don’t think you can be too critical of what’s been done.

#11 Comment By balconesfault On August 26, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee Republican is urging a “surgical” U .S. air strike against Syria in reprisal for Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

#12 Comment By sam On August 26, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

Syria is part of the larger puzzle of the middle east, after Syria comes Iran and then Pakistan, new world disorder? you betcha

#13 Comment By Rossbach On August 26, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

Politicians have been making political hay out of gas attacks since at least 1916. It’s usually quite an effective image: helpless soldiers or civilians trapped and choking to death in an evil green fog. But no one has ever successfully explained how these attacks – terrible as they may be – could be morally worse than shredding human bodies to bloody pulp with automatic weapons fire, vaporizing people with high-explosive charges from artillery fire, or using a low-flying aircraft to send napalm canisters tumbling down a village street, setting all the huts afire and creating a long line of scorched and asphyxiated bodies. A battery of 105-mm howitzers or a pair of .50 caliber machine guns fired into a populated area could produce as many casualties as poison gas. Where’s the outrage when this happens?

In any case, intervention in another country’s civil war is seldom a wise policy. The constantly increasing need to prevent further September 11th-style attacks is destroying what little remains of American freedom.

The lesson that President Obama should learn is this one: Uncle Sam should mind his own business; else he might have it minded for him.

#14 Comment By Mogden On August 26, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

It’s a good thing that it’s unconstitutional for the President to start a war without a declaration from Congress.

Ha ha ha… ho ho ho… those were the days!

#15 Comment By Reinhold On August 26, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

Military actions in Syria would be disastrous; turns out Assad is right on this one (also remember that Assad is a ferocious foe of “political Islam,” as was Hussein). I’d written the President a while back explaining that the negative consequences of U.S. intervention are obvious, as the polls confirm, to any ordinary American (though not to American officials): nearly all the fighters in the FSA are Islamists (a small minority are socialists, but there are NO ‘liberals’); Iran would then recognize Syria as a proxy war and double down in response; the moral cost would likely resemble the Kosovo or Libyan interventions, i.e. civilian casualties are likely; etc. etc. He never responded; I guess he’ll be responding in deed soon enough….

#16 Comment By Reinhold On August 26, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

Also, it’s interesting to remember that Assad, like Saddam, is a Ba’athist, which is a pseudo-socialist ideology, and like Qaddafi, Assad’s father nationalized many industries. My suspicion is that Libya and Syria were chosen as sites of intervention, like Kosovo, since they both have a lot of state enterprises which could be privatized, and in the wake of foreign intervention, the contracts could go to foreign investors. I saw several reports which suggested that “the West’s” major motive going in was trying to protect its contracts from Russia and China and other competing nations (those two had some contracts with Qaddafi, and I don’t remember exactly, but I think Russia and China opposed the NATO actions for a while, and backed off only once they were promised that all Qaddafi-era contracts would remain).

#17 Comment By Reinhold On August 26, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

*When I said “going in,” I meant to add “to Libya,” not Syria.

#18 Comment By Tim D. On August 26, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

Obama was never an isolationist. He supported American intervention in Afghanistan and since taking office has orchestrated action in places like Libya. On foreign policy, Obama is hardly a liberal. Intervention in worldly affairs has been the norm since the founding of the US, such as its failed attempts at conquering Canada.

The key difference between Obama and Bush Jr. is that Obama knows US military power isn’t the end-all, be-all solution to everything. There is a downside to everything, and Obama knows getting tangled in Syria is bad for the US. He isn’t above escalating military aid to Mideast countries already intervening in Syria, however.

#19 Comment By Clint On August 26, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

The Reuters/Ipsos poll, taken August 19-23, found that 25 percent of Americans would support U.S. intervention if Syria used chemicals to attack civilians, while 46 percent would oppose it.

#20 Comment By EarlyBird On August 26, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

We will strike Syria not to actually affect changes in that country, but to ensure that America does not “lose credibility in the region.”

Makes you wonder how many wars have been stumbled into throughout history for this very reason.

#21 Comment By Myron Hudson On August 26, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

Sometimes, when I’m leaving for work, I tell my wife that I’m going in to do something even if it’s wrong. But I’m ONLY KIDDING.

#22 Comment By William Dalton On August 26, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

It may take listening to the BBC, as I don’t know whether any domestic media are publicizing the point, but if President Obama initiates a military strike against Syria without a mandate from the Security Council of the United Nations he will have no basis in international law for doing so. Furthermore, such an attack would be itself a crime under international law, creating the possibility that Mr. Obama will himself one day become a fugitive from justice and the long arm of the courts of other nations, seeking to bring upon him the retribution he is taking upon himself and our country to inflict on Mr. Assad.

#23 Comment By balconesfault On August 27, 2013 @ 8:41 am

I’m getting the feeling that 60% of the GOP wants Obama to invade Syria because they’re unreconstituted neocons.

30% of the GOP secretly wants Obama to invade Syria so they can score political points by declaring “see, he’s just as bad as Bush”, or “the Democrats can’t be trusted to not get us involved in military conflicts we should stay out of”.

10% of the GOP actually deep down does NOT want Obama to invade Syria. Most of them may actually frequent this site.

#24 Comment By James Canning On August 27, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

Do we even know if the Syrian gov’t ordered the recent chemical weapon attack?

Obama will have himself to blame if he gets sucked into another foolish, vastly expensive military adventure in the ME.

#25 Comment By James Canning On August 27, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

@Tim D. – – Obama apparently personally thought trebling US military presence in Afghanistan would be expensive and that it would only enlarge the insurgency. But he listened to Hillary Clinton. And trebled US military presence in Afghanistan.

#26 Comment By newflowers On August 27, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

Syria is not the affair of the US. How many times do Arab nations have to tell us that they DO NOT want our intervention, interference, or other assistance? Every time we get involved, they repay us with bombs and hatred. The Turks, Sauds, Iraqis, Kuwaitis, and a host of other local nations are more than capable of taking care of themselves. Absolutely not. Have we NOT learned this lesson?

#27 Comment By Charlieford On August 28, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

“It’s a good thing that it’s unconstitutional for the President to start a war without a declaration from Congress.

“Ha ha ha… ho ho ho… those were the days!”

Not really. John Adams initiated the Quasi War with France already in the 1790s; Jefferson took us to war against Tripoli; and Madison against Algiers–all without declarations.

Of 29 Indian Wars and some 280+ foreign military operations across our history, the US has only declared war five times. Four of those–1812, Mexico, Spain, WWI–are often considered to suffer from a good-idea deficit . . .