Home/Daniel Larison/The Syria Vote and “Iraq Syndrome”

The Syria Vote and “Iraq Syndrome”

William Galston’s column on Syria and the “Iraq syndrome” is overwrought:

He [Obama] must be prepared to go all-in to win what is shaping up as a tough fight on Capitol Hill. One thing is clear: A loss would shatter his presidency, and a lot more.

It could be true that Obama’s presidency would be permanently damaged by a defeat of a Syria resolution, but it is doubtful that the U.S. would lose anything important because of this. Kerry made any number of “guarantees” to the Foreign Relations Committee about things that he couldn’t possibly know or guarantee with certainty, but one of the more preposterous claims that Kerry made yesterday was that the U.S. would lose allies by not attacking Syria. It is possible that relations with some client states in the Gulf would be strained, but it is silly to think that there are any allies of the United States that would cease to be allies because they found the U.S. response insufficient. Interventionists typically overstate the costs of inaction and underestimate the costs of the action they demand, and Galston’s column is no different.

If Obama suffers a major political wound on account of the resolution’s failure, it will almost entirely self-inflicted. Because he chose to turn his reportedly “unscripted” remark into a justification for military action, he created a political problem for himself that he could have easily avoided. Going to a very skeptical Congress with such a remarkably weak case for war doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that a president would do if he wanted to order a strike, but it seems undeniable from the rhetoric of administration officials over the last two weeks that Obama very much wants to win the vote. If he loses, which he certainly could, it would be a significant political embarrassment, but it might also save him from compounding the error he made last year when he issued his ill-advised “red line” statements. While he might not appreciate it at first, the people voting against him in Congress might be doing him the biggest favor of his second term by providing him with a good way to reject the inevitable pressure for increasing U.S. involvement in Syria. The pressure to escalate will come no matter how Congress votes this month, but the only plausible way that Obama can resist it for the remainder of his term is if Congress rejects any form of military intervention in Syria. If he gives in to that pressure, war in Syria will consume and wreck his second term just as surely as the Iraq war did to his predecessor’s, and that will do far more to “shatter” his presidency and America’s standing in the world than anything that happens in Congress in the next few weeks.

I should add a few comments about “Iraq syndrome,” since this is becoming a common way to describe the absolutely justifiable and sane reaction of the public and even many in Washington to the disaster of the Iraq war. Interventionists call this a syndrome because it is supposed to be seen as an affliction or something from which Americans need to recover, as if there were something unhealthy or harmful in becoming extremely wary of waging wars of choice in countries that we don’t understand very well for dubious and often unobtainable goals. On the contrary, the existence of this so-called “syndrome” is proof that the public is very sensibly recoiling from the repeated misjudgments and mistakes of their political leaders. Most Americans are firmly against making yet another major foreign policy error, and what they keep hearing from Washington and from much of the media is that they are suffering from some kind of malady that needs to be cured with another war. It should be obvious that this will intensify the so-called “Iraq syndrome” and make the public even less supportive of U.S. “leadership” when that leadership is defined primarily or even solely in terms of the near-constant use of military force.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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