Iraq 2003 vs. Syria 2013

The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto:

Our initial reaction was that if we were a member of Congress, we would be inclined to vote “no.” We ultimately, and with some difficulty, changed our mind, as we shall detail below. Our resistance–and our continuing misgivings about the prospect of an attack on Syria–are informed by reflection on our errors during the 2002-03 debate that preceded the Iraq war, of which we were a strong supporter. …

Things are not so bad today that one can say with anything approaching certainty that they would be better if Congress had voted down the authorization to use force in 2002, or if President Bush had declined to avail himself of it the following year. It is not difficult to imagine a counterfactual scenario in which Saddam Hussein is still in power and things are worse than they are today. It is easier still to imagine one in which things are bad enough that those who supported war in 2002-03, having lost the political debate, feel as justified in saying “I told you so” as those who opposed it do today. All we know–all we can know–is what happened; might-have-beens are by definition speculative.

What we can say is that events disproved certain of our expectations–that our predictions were wrong. Three such erroneous expectations are pertinent here:

First, that because the U.S. military was so much mightier than the Iraqi one, victory would be comparatively easy. (“Cakewalk” was a buzzword of the day.) Although that was true of the initial invasion, opponents who warned of the possibility of a lengthy and difficult terrorist/guerrilla insurgency proved to be correct.

Second, that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam’s dictatorship would have a benevolent transformative effect on the broader Middle East. The region does appear to be undergoing a transformation–the so-called Arab Spring–but as to whether that is because of or in spite of the Iraq war, one can hardly fault the answer Paul Wolfowitz gave us in a 2011 interview: “It’s a fascinating question, and one should probably simply . . . say it’s in the category of the unknowable.” More important, it is clear by now that the transformation is very far from unambiguously benevolent.

Third, that the breadth of domestic political support for the war–which had the contemporaneous bipartisan backing of 69% of House members, 77% of senatorsand around 70% of the public–was indicative of a durable commitment to the war effort. Some Democratic supporters–John Kerry most notable among them–switched sides even before the shooting began; and support from the broader public slowly, and it turned out irretrievably, diminished over the ensuing few years.

All these erroneous assumptions fall into the category of wishful thinking.

Opponents of the war were also prone to wishful thinking, as well as to the magical kind. The appeal of Barack Obama in 2008 lay not only in his status as the only serious Democratic candidate to have opposed the war from the outset, but also in the belief that his conciliatory rhetoric, along with his “multicultural” identity (black, with Muslim ancestors and an Arabic middle name to boot!) would “restore our moral standing,” as the future president put it in his nomination speech, and usher in “a new beginning,” as he announced in Cairo in June 2009.

Obama’s supporters would now have us believe that his swaggering words are as powerful as his soothing ones were supposed to have been. The McClatchy Washington Bureau reported Saturday that “foreign policy experts questioned the wisdom of waiting at least another week for Congress to return before the U.S. could act.” In response:

Administration officials downplayed any risk at the military level, saying they believed Obama’s strong words alone would prevent Assad or his allies from striking before the U.S. make [sic] a decision. One official simply called any future attack by Assad a “big mistake.”

This is an example of magical thinking that is not wishful. It would indeed be a big tactical mistake for Assad either to attack U.S. forces or again to use chemical weapons while congressional action is pending. But that is because of Obama’s political weakness, not his rhetorical strength. Congressional assent to Obama’s request for military authorization is far from assured; if Assad wants to keep it that way, he will lie low as the debate plays out. …

Obama is not making any claim that military action against Syria will have a transformative effect. His argument, instead, rests on the potential dire consequences of inaction. We find it persuasive. Maintaining the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons (and nuclear and biological ones) is a moral imperative. These armaments have the capacity to kill on a far greater scale than conventional explosives and bullets.

But if action is necessary as a moral matter, it must also be sufficient as a practical matter. And that is where Obama’s plan falls terrifyingly short. Here is what he said on Saturday:

This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.

On Friday, before Obama made the decision to seek congressional authorization first,Secretary of State Kerry said that “whatever decision [the president] makes in Syria it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya.” That’s a bizarre and illogical assertion: It will be a “resemblance” to Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, if Obama acts with congressional authorization, and to Libya had he chosen to act without it. But Kerry elaborated in words similar to those the president used the next day:

It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway. The president has been clear: Any action that he might decide to take will be [a] limited and tailored response to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable.

In short, the administration is promising a cakewalk: an easy strike with little American blood or treasure at stake. As we argued Friday, it is fatuous to assume that would prove sufficient to hold Assad “accountable” or to deter him and other dictators from further bad acts. …

Which makes the president’s request for congressional authorization difficult to understand as anything but a political ploy, at best an exercise in buck-passing, at worst–and this has been suggested approvingly by some of his admirers–a strategic effort to inflict political damage on congressional Republicans. In support of the latter hypothesis one may note that Obama maintained the element of surprise with his Capitol Hill adversaries while going to ridiculous lengths to spare Bashar Assad of it. …

There is an intellectually respectable argument that the Constitution prohibits the president from taking any military action, except in response to an imminent or actual attack on U.S. territory or armed forces, without congressional approval. But Obama himself disavowed that view on Saturday! According to him, he thinks he has the authority to act in Syria without Congress, and he thinks action is imperative. Yet he invited Congress to say “no”–or, at best, to tie his hands so that he cannot, without defying the law, take further action should his promised cakewalk fail to deliver the sweets. …

If you believe the media stereotype of Republicans, and especially House Republicans–that they are science-hating anti-intellectuals; knaves, zealots and racists happy to put political power, ideology and hatred of the president above any concern for the good of the country–then you should view his discretionary decision to give them veto power over a matter of grave national importance as a disgraceful abdication of responsibility, if not an impeachable offense.

Which brings us back to Iraq. In 2002 some Democrats (and perhaps a few Republicans) went against their inclinations and voted to authorize the war for reasons of political expediency. With the memory of 9/11 still fresh, the public was behind the president, and lawmakers feared being tagged as soft on terror.

That was a political miscalculation. As the Democratic nominee in 2004, Kerry could not explain his flip-flop, and the next Democrat to be elected president was a future senator who had shown political prescience in denouncing what he called a “dumb war” in a Chicago speech in 2002.

In that speech, it is worth noting, Barack Obama rejected precisely the moral argument he made so powerfully on Saturday:

Now let me be clear–I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

Unless in the next week or so he discovers a heretofore unrealized capacity to move public opinion on substantive matters of policy, the expedient thing for lawmakers of either party to do will be to vote “no” while smugly minimizing the moral stakes by noting that while Assad is of course “a bad guy,” he poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, the Syrian economy is in shambles, there are lots of other mass-murdering dictators and we can’t bomb ’em all, and so forth.

Any opportunistic lawmaker who takes that path will be following the example set by the man who is now president of the United States.

I’m a big fan of Taranto’s, but I’m confused after reading this. He gives better arguments to be against bombing Syria than arguments on the side he says he favors. There remains the issue of whether the Syrian government used chemical weapons. Given that the weapons were used on Syrians who were supporting Assad, the entire premise of a future attack seems dubious.

One of the Facebook comments about Taranto’s piece explains things well:

Tradition had it that “politics stops at the waters’ edge when it comes to war.” It’s not Congress that is playing politics with Syria, it’s our President. Shame, shame, shame on Obama and shame on all who thought this weak, vain and selfish man was what our country needed. I hated Bill Clinton because I thought he was a sleaze ball in his personal life and greedy. I never, however, thought that he didn’t love his country or that he didn’t always try to do his best when it came to foreign affairs, even if I didn’t agree with his decisions. Obama, however, makes Clinton look like George Washington. There is clearly nothing that shouldn’t and will not be used by our current President to achieve his political objectives and cover his own butt.

In other words: No one — no one — should trust Obama’s ability to make the right decision.

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