By Other Means

Obama Can’t Win

Even if Congress approves the Syria adventure, the president still loses.

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Getty Images

My late grandfather, a dedicated communist until Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956, was fond of quoting Marxist aphorisms (an enthusiasm that long outlasted his admiration for the Communist Party). Among his favorites was the much-cited opening passage of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, published in 1852:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

It’s a great line, with the double virtue of being eminently quotable and giving Hegel — that’s Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, not to be confused with Chuck — a nice little backhand smack on the nose. But it’s also much too pat. Sure, history repeats itself, and sure, sometimes things get farcical. Mostly, though, the second go-round brings only more tragedy.

So it is with President Barack Obama and Syria.

Because you’ve heard this one before, right? An American president tells the world that brief, decisive military action is necessary to keep a murderous Middle Eastern despot from using weapons of mass destruction. The world is skeptical (as is the U.S. public). Declassified U.S. intelligence reports are bandied about. Foreign leaders remain unconvinced, urging patience and diplomacy as U.N. inspectors prepare a report of their own. The American president insists he’ll use force unilaterally if necessary, and dares Congress to disagree. Congress caves.

The first time — that would be Iraq, for those of you who are new around here — things ended badly. You’ll recall that the intelligence turned out to have been cooked (if not cooked through, it was at least half-baked). The U.N. secretary-general declared the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq illegal. And despite early Bush administration promises that the use of U.S. military force would be limited in scope and duration, the United States soon found itself embroiled in a multi-sided conflict that lasted eight years, cost more than a trillion dollars and killed nearly 4,500 American servicemembers (not to mention untold thousands of Iraqis).

You may also recall a young senator named Barack Obama, whose principled opposition to the Iraq War brought him national fame. In October 2002, Obama had this to say about the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq:

I don’t oppose all wars … What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war … 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 … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors … I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda.

It was a good speech. The kind of speech — full of passion and honesty and good sense — that eventually propelled Obama into the White House.

Ten years later, of course, it’s President Obama who finds himself trying to sell a U.S. military intervention to a reluctant world. The ironies are staggering, and sad.

I won’t belabor the parallels, for there are very real differences between Iraq and Syria, and between Bush and Obama. Saddam Hussein’s most egregious acts of butchery were largely over by 2003, while the butchery in Syria is ongoing. Bush embraced the war in Iraq with enthusiasm, while Obama came only reluctantly to his current embrace of military action in Syria. And while regime change was a stated objective of the Iraq War, Obama has explicitly foresworn regime change as an objective in Syria.

But I’m not sure these differences make the current situation less tragic. In many ways, they make it more so.

It’s painful to see Obama, who was once so famously moved by Samantha Power’s book on the Rwandan genocide, insist that a hundred thousand dead Syrians is very sad, but not America’s problem. Most of the dead civilians unwisely got themselves killed in the traditional manner, with bullets and bombs; it’s only the 1,400 Syrians killed by chemical weapons who merit U.S. action (as opposed to U.S. sympathy). Why? Because for some reason the international laws prohibiting chemical weapons require reaffirmation through the use of U.S. military force, whereas the international laws prohibiting other war crimes require no such reaffirmation.

It’s painful to see the president insist that the United States doesn’t want regime change, in one of the few situations in which urging regime change would surely be justified. Assad is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own citizens in a brutal, ongoing conflict, and we don’t hope he’ll be ousted?

Most of all, it’s painful to see this president — the man who once spoke so eloquently against "rash wars" driven by "cynicism" and "politics" — going to war to solely because he’s boxed himself into a rhetorical corner. Sure, "credibility" is important — but is living up to one thoughtless remark about red lines more important than avoiding pointless, poorly thought-through military action?

Oddly, many in the media seem convinced that Obama’s pledge to seek congressional authorization for a Syria intervention was a clever gamble. It wasn’t. It was, to paraphrase Obama, a dumb gamble. That’s because there is now no good outcome for Obama, only a range of painfully ironic outcomes.

Consider the possibilities:

One: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, so Obama decides not to move ahead with military action. But wait: Obama already informed the nation that as commander-in-chief, he has "decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets … based on what I am convinced is our national security interests." If that’s true — and if Obama also believes he has the authority to act without congressional authorization — how can he possibly refrain from military action merely because he can’t get enough votes in a famously dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress?

Two: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, and Obama — the one-time constitutional law professor — goes ahead with airstrikes anyway, ignoring the clearly expressed will of Congress.

Three: Congress votes in favor of authorizing military action in Syria, leaving Obama permanently beholden to congressional Republicans. This means the White House can kiss its domestic legislative agenda goodbye.

These are all rotten outcomes for Obama. And, lest I forget, U.S. military action in Syria is also a tragic outcome. The president proposed limited "punitive" air strikes aimed merely at destroying the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, but these are probably pointless: They won’t change the balance of power in Syria. If we want to change the balance of power — which Obama says doesn’t interest him — we’ll need more extensive strikes aimed at degrading the Assad regime’s military capabilities more broadly. But this, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey warned last week, could easily "escalate and … commit us decisively to the conflict." (See: Iraq, 2003.) 

All right — but Syria isn’t Iraq, and perhaps we should commit ourselves decisively to the conflict. But if we do so, let’s do so for the right reason (stopping the violence altogether, not just making an empty "statement" about chemical weapons). And let’s do so with our eyes wide open to the many risks: Humanitarian intervention can have as many unintended and terrible consequences as any other kind of military intervention.

I’ll fess up to being thoroughly ambivalent about this. My gut feeling is that the United States might have successfully intervened to end the slaughter 18 months ago, but by now it’s probably too late. The conflict has metastasized: It’s no longer a popular revolution against a repressive regime, but a multi-party conflict in which al Qaeda-linked insurgents have gained the upper hand over secular rebel factions, and multiple other states have already been drawn in. As a result, a wholesale U.S. intervention could easily end up just making a bloody mess messier and bloodier still — both for the Syrian people and for the United States.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, even now, the United States has the ability to stop the conflict, restore security, and enable a less predatory Syrian government to take hold. But either way, it’s now largely irrelevant: Obama has made it clear that the only norm he’s interested in trying to enforce militarily is the narrow norm against using chemical weapons, not the broader norm against slaughtering civilians.

It was the German philosopher Hegel — Marx’s foil in the opening lines of the Eighteenth Brumaire — who famously insisted that true tragedy involves something far more complex and ambiguous than the defeat of good by evil. True tragedy, Hegel argued, involves a conflict between two goods, each too rigidly defined.

Marx got the best of Hegel rhetorically, but there’s nothing farcical about Obama’s handling of the crisis in Syria. History repeats itself, and it’s tragedy every time.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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