Syria isn’t Iraq and Obama isn’t Bush


To be sure, President Obama will explain whatever decision he makes regarding Syria with a credibility problem, partly of his own making and partly inherited. The self-inflicted part can be summed up in a sentence: leakers of classified information to the press are in prison or hiding while war criminals are going unprosecuted. The general public might not care, but Obama’s base does, and he’s going to need our support for a potentially unpopular intervention.

The other problem Obama inherited from Bush Jr. Essentially, the attitude is Bush lied to trick the country into going to war, so Obama is lying too. It would betray a gross ignorance of history to think Bush was the first president to lie about a war, but not all presidents are guilty and not every use of force is based on a lie. Decisions might be arguable or even terribly wrong, but they’re not all lies. To believe Obama is no different from Bush and whatever decision is made about Syria is the same as invading Iraq isn’t skepticism. That’s cynicism — and I do see some of us engaging in cynicism.

The alternative to believing just anything isn’t insisting on believing nothing. Skepticism means demanding proof before accepting a claim. Why did most of us on the left oppose invading Iraq? If it was because we knew we were being lied to, then I suggest some faulty memories are at work. We suspected deception, but all we had to go on was what was presented to the public, and we didn’t know Iraq had no WMDs or ties to Al Qaida. We just knew the Bush administration’s case wasn’t holding up to scrutiny, and if you’re asking us to inflict the horrors of war on another country, you better have awfully strong proof — which they didn’t, even before we knew they cherrypicked the evidence to reveal only the supportive parts and withheld contradictory evidence.

Yet here is where we get to a huge difference between invading Iraq and whatever Obama decides about Syria. There was no war in Iraq until Bush started it, and his administration conducted a long sales campaign to gain public and congressional support. There is already war in Syria. Obama isn’t starting it, and he quite clearly doesn’t want to get involved. If he did, he’s already had plenty of pretext. He knows how to run a public relations campaign. He could have intervened a couple years ago if he wanted. He could have used Syria to distract from the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. He could have ginned up a war in time for his reelection, given how the country rallies around the president in wartime. Obviously he chose not to. In terms of domestic politics, Obama has nothing to gain by involvement in another conflict. The public clearly doesn’t want to get involved, and explaining the reasons for getting involved will be difficult, which is a headache Obama certainly won’t want. We can also figure a president who reads and personally signs all condolence letters to families of dead servicemembers is fully aware of what risks he’ll be ordering for real people.

None of that means Obama’s eventual decision is bound to be right, but it does mean anyone suggesting some nefarious motive behind his decision has a considerable burden of proof. Many Democrats are reluctant to get involved in yet another war, I would guess that describes the vast majority of us, and such Democrats clearly include Obama.

Let’s make one other thing clear: I never have, and still don’t, give any credence to the notion we should just trust the president because he’s the president. We should never just accept that the president or the military know more than the public so let them do as they see fit. Trust has to be earned, not once, but on an ongoing basis. That applies to Obama too, no matter how much we supported him in the past or support him in other matters. It just seems there’s a massive difference between a president so anxious to use force that he makes things up, and one so skeptical about joining a war that selling him on it takes a long time. I’ll take the skeptical president, thank you.

Does Obama have a risk-free option? No. Doing nothing is an option, but that entails risks too. If we arm the rebels enough to let them win, some of those arms will end up with people we’d rather not arm, whether we assess a group wrong, or the “right” group sells them or loses them to some nasty people in the intra-rebel fighting that seems likely once they win. Maybe some Islamists use our arms to grab control of part of Syria, or they go to other countries to cause problems. Even if they lose, they could leave Syria and set up to cause problems elsewhere. Maybe they’ll even attack us. Even if the “right” rebels get the arms, but all they can do is lose more slowly, then what?

If we try to impose a no-fly zone, maybe we drop bombs on innocent civilians. Maybe our planes get shot down and the crews killed or captured. Maybe we find the no-fly zone isn’t enough and we essentially become the rebels’ air support. The outside world was content to let Gaddafi lose, but Assad is getting foreign help, and that help might increase in response to whatever problems we cause him. Is there a chance more direct intervention on behalf of the rebels causes more direct intervention on behalf of the government, and an escalation of the war? Regarding the price, no-fly zones aren’t cheap. Libya cost about $1 billion, which is very cheap compared to spending that much every few days in Iraq, but Syria is a lot bigger than Libya, and we’re not getting by for a measly billion this time.

If once again the US has to carry the burden, will everyone else learn that if they just wait long enough we’ll take care of things? The rebels are getting some help from some neighbors, but why aren’t they doing enough to let the rebels win rather than lose slowly? Europe could get more directly involved. Turkey is right there and clearly prefers a rebel victory. As an American, I admit frustration that so often, nothing gets done about crises like this unless until we do it. To give credit, the African Union countries at least try to handle Africa’s problems (they can’t always do it, but they try before calling in the West), but in the rest of the world, it seems everyone waits on us.

Yet doing nothing has risks too. Starting a war is always risky because they rarely proceed as intended by whoever started them, but recall that key difference with Iraq: if Bush hadn’t decided to invade Iraq, there wouldn’t have been a war, yet Syria is already at war and the war looks sure to continue for the foreseeable future. If we stay out, the rebels will presumably continue to do what they’ve been doing, and accept help from wherever they can get it, and they’ve been getting it from Islamists. If our concern is to prevent prospective terrorists and insurgents from getting arms and experience, leaving the rebels nowhere else to turn might be the decision that gives the Islamists that influence.

That’s just the rebels. The government is still going to harbor a huge grudge against us and, with the sense of impunity they’re likely to feel after winning, might offer help to anyone willing to come after us. It might feel free to use force to settle any dispute with its neighbors or promote its territorial ambitions. The government has already received help from Hezbollah, Russia, and Iran. Will they decide the lesson to learn is that if they assert themselves, other countries will back down?

Moreover, we have to ask if it’s in our interests, or just in the interests of humanitarianism, to reinforce the belief that chemical weapons are too horrible to be used. Yes, people are just as dead when they’re shot, but let’s ban what weapons we can. Do we want dictators to get an object lesson in the heavy costs of resorting to chemical weapons? Do we want them to learn that even when their circumstances are as bad as Assad’s, resorting to chemical weapons makes things worse? That would be a good lesson to teach.

We keep hearing that the Arab Spring has fallen apart, yet in some countries it was a success. Some regimes survived by making concessions. Some decided to use as much force as necessary to stay in power. What lesson would it better for other dictators to learn, that concessions work when done substantially and quickly enough, like in Jordan and Morocco, or that they can stay in power if they just slaughter enough people? Maybe Libya was a good lesson in the risks of relying on force, but Assad had already gone all-in on force by the time Gaddafi was defeated. Is it in our interests to have Assad serve as reinforcement that force is a losing proposition? Might Assad’s defeat save us some similar situations in the future?

To anticipate a reasonable question, if humanitarianism could justify an intervention, then wasn’t the invasion of Iraq justified? No, for two reason. First, we weren’t sold the Iraq invasion on humanitarianism, which is a bit of a shame since at least we could have debated the war on a factual basis. That war was about alleged threats to us, not the awfulness of the Saddam regime. Second, and I know this is the third mention but it’s that important, Iraq wasn’t already at war. The invasion and occupation created a humanitarian crisis much worse than Iraqis were living with, and maybe Saddam would have been overthrown anyway in the Arab Spring. We’ll never know. Syrians are already living with sieges, snipers, bombings, torture, displacement, everything that makes the infliction of war a crime against humanity, and have made it clear they want their government gone. So Iraq and Syria just aren’t similar situations.

To anticipate another question, why aren’t we talking about a full scale invasion as one of the options? Because from all accounts, the Obama administration isn’t even thinking about invading. If they were, this entire post would be about what a lousy idea that is. If you can’t come up with at least four reasons why in the next 30 seconds, please don’t involve yourself in foreign policy, ever. It’s not helpful of course for polls to ask about whether people support “intervention” without defining what that means, leaving respondents to fill in their own context. I’m guessing they heard “intervention” as a full scale invasion, but news consumers shouldn’t be left guessing at how the question was meant and interpreted.

Are we being partisan, supporting military actions by a Democratic president while opposing those by Republican presidents? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I try to live up to my advice to take each situation on its own. In other words, no, it isn’t partisanship. I certainly agree with most decisions by the Democrats and disagree with most Republican presidents’ decisions, but there’s a reason I support one party over the other — one gets it right a lot more often than the other. Still, “most” hardly means “all”. I supported Bush Sr.’s intervention in Somalia to deliver famine relief over the objections of the warlords, and I have no problem admitting the Clinton administration mishandled it. I opposed Bush Jr. on Iraq, but he was right on Liberia.

How are we so sure it was the government who used chemical weapons and not the rebels? We don’t yet, and it’s the responsibility of the administration to tell us how they know, but realistically, it’s highly likely the UN inspectors will prove it, or cite substantial interference from the Syrian government which is pretty damning. Juan Cole explained why the “false flag” theory is pretty sure to fall apart:

Some have asked why the regime would risk using poison gas when it has been making gains against the rebels. But the regime’s advances are minor and tenuous. It only took the small town of Qusayr with Hizbullah help! And ‘advances’ in Homs were just scorched earth destruction of neighborhoods. They were offset by loss of a major air base near Aleppo, key for resupply of troops up there because roads north are insecure. The regime can only advance here or there, but doesn’t have manpower to take back substantial territory.

My guess is that rebels in Rif Dimashq in outskirts of the capital were making inroads toward Damascus itself. Defensive troops are off tied down in Homs. Since the capital is the real prize and end game, the regime decided to let them know it wouldn’t be allowed. It is the typical behavior of a weak regime facing superior demographic forces (the Alawites are far outnumbered by Sunnis) to deploy unconventional weaponry. Although there was a risk in using the gas, the regime may have felt threatened enough to take the risk, confident that it could muddy the waters afterwards with charges that it was actually the rebels who were behind it.

I don’t find the ‘false flag’ narrative about the gas attack put forward by the Russians plausible. Rebel forces are not disciplined enough to be sure of being able to plot and carry out a mass murder of the families that have been sheltering them in East and West Ghouta and to keep it secret. How could they have been sure no one among them would get cold feet and blow the whistle? Killing hundreds of women and children from your own clans would be objectionable to at least some in any group of fighters. The fighters in Rif Dimashq are not the hardened Jabhat al-Nusra types. Besides, capturing and deploying rocket systems tipped with poison gas is not so easy; even just operating them takes training.

What I ask of Obama at this point is to be much better at explaining the reasons for his decision than he was in Libya. He generally made the rights calls, but he didn’t do so well at explaining why we were there. The goal in Syria needs to be defined. Are we making sure the rebels win? Are we giving the rebels a better chance to win? Are we attacking the government’s ability to make and use chemical weapons? Are we inflicting enough harm to convince the government to not use chemical weapons again, and then the war goes on as before? Are we trying to force the government to negotiate with the rebels? The public tends to support military actions when they start, but the start is usually the peak of support. Eventually, the public needs to feel it can answer the question, “Why are we there?”

Obama was begrudging and technical at best in complying with the War Powers Act. Congress gets something to say, yes, even as dysfunctional a Congress as this one. Even expecting that just like Libya, our involvement will be denounced by the same people who were denouncing Obama for being slow to get in. We still have the rule of law supposedly, and in the wake of the NSA scandal, that needs reinforcement. I say that aware that the war isn’t likely to end within the window allowed by the War Powers Act for the president to act without congressional approval, and if Republicans think they can screw over Obama by screwing up the war, they’ll probably do it. Since they had little reluctance about forcing a government default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and they’re talking seriously about impeachment with no concern over what the grounds will be, I don’t put it past them to deny authorization for whatever is going on in Syria just to make Obama fail. It’s a terrible dilemma, one I suspect was behind the reluctance to comply with the War Powers Act regarding Libya, and I might be tempted myself in Obama’s place to find some legal loophole to prevent Congress from making a hash of things. Still, Congress has the war making power, and the War Powers Act is the law. We have to think about how we want a future Congress to be able to restrain a future president from taking the country into war on his own.

UPDATE: I addressed domestic legality in the concluding paragraph, but not international law. This article from France 24 explains it fairly well.