Two lessons from Iraq that could haunt Obama’s Syria policy

Two lessons from Iraq that could haunt Obama’s Syria policy

There are many ways that painful lessons from the Iraq war have been shaping or will come to shape Obama’s Syria policy. Here are two I have not seen discussed much yet:

1. The public punishes policy failure even if it supported the policy initially. Bush’s Iraq policies were very popular at the outset. Over time, however, the policies looked less and less successful, and by the darkest days of the war, it looked like the American mission might end in a fiasco. The downward policy trajectory contributed directly to a downward trajectory in public opinion. Yes, there were other reasons — such as the failure to find WMD — but the negative fortunes of the war were significant. The fact that large majorities of the public approved of the invasion at the outset did not protect the policy when the war turned south.  

Obama faces precisely this risk on Syria. His current policy of not intervening decisively is popular enough — the polls show at best modest support for military intervention if WMD has been used and at worst profound reluctance about shouldering additional burdens in the region. Obama, in his ambivalence, has the comfort of being aligned with the public today. But this is a cold comfort, since his policy is failing, every bit and perhaps more so than Bush’s Iraq policy during the war’s darkest days. Once the public concludes that Obama has failed in Syria, it will not matter much that they initially supported the policies that yielded this failure.

2. Doing the right thing belatedly can rescue the policy without restoring public support for the policy. President Bush turned around the Iraq War by authorizing the surge in 2007. This came late in the war but not too late to turn Iraq from a trajectory of failure to something much better. The surge not only reversed the situation in Iraq, it also changed the political reality at home. Iraq went from being a seething issue that was dominating the political stage to an issue largely devoid of political sting. By the time President Obama took office, the political pressure had been so drained from the Iraq issue that he had a virtual free hand to conduct Iraq policy as he saw fit, jettisoning campaign promises and rhetoric along the way. However, the surge came too late to change the public’s overall estimation of the Iraq war. Today clear majorities deem it a mistake, not worth the cost — and at best a "stalemate," not a "victory" (albeit it neither a "defeat"). Had the surge and its fruits come earlier in the course of the war when support for the war was higher, perhaps the surge would have been able to do more than simply take the political sting out of the war — it might even have convinced more of the public to stick with their initial support.

Obama seems to be inching toward intervening more aggressively in Syria. At this point, the prospects for that intervention look bleak. But even if the supporters of this option are right, and it is not too late for American action to decisively shift U.S. Syria policy toward something less than a fiasco, it may be too late for the public to see Syria as a success and to credit President Obama accordingly.

Of course, President Obama, like President Bush before him, should do what is in the best interests of the country regardless of the impact on public opinion. But political White Houses do care about political consequences, and in that regard the lessons from Iraq are bleak.