I take Paul Waldman’s larger point here, but he is wrong when he says this:
That’s why all along, President Obama’s reaction to the situation in Syria and Iraq has been so careful and limited. The last thing he wanted was to be drawn back into another war with the potential to be just as bad for us and everyone else as George W. Bush’s Iraq War was. So instead, he’s been pulled in that direction one tiny step at a time [bold mine-DL].
We should be able to recognize by now that Obama’s response to conflicts in Syria and Iraq may be less aggressive than what others would like, but it hasn’t really been careful or limited. On several occasions, Obama has rhetorically committed the U.S. to very ambitious goals without having any idea how those goals are going to be met and without considering whether they would be worth the cost required. He has repeatedly claimed that there were limits to what the U.S. would be willing to do in Iraq and Syria and then violated one after another. Just weeks after Obama said that the U.S. wouldn’t function as the Iraqi government’s air force, the U.S. started being exactly that. Months after pledging that there would be no boots on the ground in Syria, Obama has reversed himself again. It is always just a matter of time before each limit is erased or ignored.
I have discussed Obama’s bad habit of issuing unwise ultimatums before, but a review might be useful here. When conflict in Syria was just beginning, Obama declared that Assad “must go,” and thereby locked himself into backing the removal of a foreign leader without thinking through how it would happen or what would come next. Then he issued his mistaken “red line” threat, and was on the verge of starting a war in 2013 to back up that threat until opposition in Britain and here at home made an intervention too politically risky. This is not the record of someone who has been “careful” in his responses. On the contrary, he has repeatedly trapped himself into pursuing bad policies through his careless rhetoric.
It is also strange to think of Obama’s response as “limited” when he keeps exceeding the limits that he set for U.S. involvement. The war on ISIS began last year ostensibly as a defensive mission to protect persecuted Yazidis and U.S. diplomatic outposts, but quickly became something entirely different. Then Obama declared that the U.S. mission was to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, and before we knew it U.S. planes were bombing targets in Syria. Now U.S. forces are being deployed in Syria, and presumably that will not be the last time that the administration ignores the limits it previously set. Note that at each step along the way, Obama was not “pulled” into any of these decisions. He made each one when he was never really compelled to do so.