One of the problems that Barack Obama has in mounting an attack against the Assad regime is that the gambit violates every argument Barack Obama used against the Bush administration to establish his own anti-war candidacy.
The hypocrisy is so stunning that it infuriates his critics and stuns his supporters.
Deriding the Iraq war was Obama’s signature selling point. He used it to great effect against both Hillary Clinton (who voted for the war) in the Democratic primaries and John McCain in the general election. For the last five years, disparagement of “Iraq” and “Bush” has seemed to intrude into almost every sentence the president utters.
And now? His sudden pro-war stance makes a number of hypocritical assumptions. First, the U.S. president can attack a sovereign nation without authorization from Congress (unlike the Iraq war when George W. Bush obtained authorization from both houses of Congress). Even if Obama gets a no vote, he said that he reserves the right to strike.
Second, Obama assumes that the U.S. must go it alone and attack unilaterally (unlike the coalition of the willing of some 40 nations that joined us in Iraq).
Third, it is unnecessary even to approach the UN (unlike Iraq when the Bush administration desperately sought UN support).
Fourth, the U.S. president must make a judgment call on the likelihood of WMD use, which is grounds ipso facto to go to war (unlike Iraq when the vast majority of the 23 congressionally authorized writs had nothing to do with WMD [e.g., genocide of the Marsh Arabs and Kurds, bounties to suicide bombers, harboring of international terrorists, violations of UN agreements, attempts to kill a former U.S. president, etc.]).
So review for a moment the Old Obama case against the New Obama.
On the perils of going it alone without allies
“Where the stakes are the highest, in the war on terror, we cannot possibly succeed without extraordinary international cooperation. Effective international police actions require the highest degree of intelligence sharing, planning and collaborative enforcement.” (2004)
So far no European or Arab nation has offered military support for our planned effort against Syria.
On the need to obtain UN approval before attacking another country
“You know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.” (2013)
After misleading the UN in obtaining no-fly-zones for Libya (and then bombing troops on the ground), Obama is not even approaching the UN for a resolution to bomb this time around.
On the idea that armed intervention is ever a good option
“I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” (2008)
The mindset in Iraq was to stop a genocidal dictator like Saddam Hussein who had gassed his own people — apparently the present mission is to stop the genocidal dictator Bashar Assad, who has gassed his own people.
On the folly of starting a wrong war to ensure a president’s sinking credibility
“It’s time to reject the counsel that says the American people would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right.” (2008)
“That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” (2002)
Most believe that we are going to war mostly to restore Obama’s credibility after he issued an ill-advised red line to Syria that he thought would never be crossed — a war, in other words, predicated on “politics.”
On the dangers of not defining a mission or a methodology
“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.” (2002)
“When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they’re going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.” (2004)
So far we have not articulated the purpose of attacking Syria, the methods of intervention, or the desired outcome of the war — at a time of deep administration cuts to defense, soon to be made worse by sequestration.
On not intervening in the civil wars and internal affairs of Arab nations
“The U.S. military has performed valiantly and brilliantly in Iraq. Our troops have done all that we have asked them to do and more. But no amount of American soldiers can solve the political differences at the heart of somebody else’s civil war, nor settle the grievances in the hearts of the combatants.” (2007).
Syria is currently in “somebody else’s” civil war in which the Assad dictatorship, Hezbollah militias, and Iranian volunteers are battling al-Qaeda affiliates, the Free Syrian Army, and various unknown coalitions of Assad opponents.
On the need for obtaining congressional authorization
“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action. As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J.Res.23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.” In response to a question “In what circumstances would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? … The notion that as a consequence of that [2002 Congressional] authorization, the president can continue down a failed path without any constraints from Congress whatsoever is wrong and is not warranted by our Constitution.” (2007)
The president did not ask Congress for authorization for the Libya attack. He just flip-flopped and plans to ask permission from Congress to bomb Syria, but indicated that he might bomb anyway should they say no. Neither Libya nor Syria posed an “imminent threat.”
Dr. Barack and Mr. Hyde
So why is there such a disconnect between what Obama once declared and what he subsequently professed? There are four explanations, none of them mutually exclusive:
A. Candidate Obama had no experience in foreign policy and has always winged it, now and then recklessly sounding off when he thought he could score cheap points against George Bush. As president, he still has no idea of how foreign policy is conducted, and thus continues to make things up as he goes along, often boxing himself into a corner with serial contradictions. Trying to discern any consistency or pattern in such an undisciplined mind is a futile exercise: what Obama says or does at any given moment usually is antithetical to what he said or did on a prior occasion. He is simply lost and out of his league.
B. Candidate Obama has always been an adroit demagogue. He knew how to score political points against George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, without any intention of abiding by his own sweeping declarations. The consistency in Obama’s foreign policy is his own carefully calibrated self-interest. Bombing or not bombing, shutting down or keeping open Guantanamo Bay, going or not going to the UN or the U.S. Congress — these choices are all predicated not on principle, but only on what a canny and unprincipled Obama feels best suits his own political interests and self-image at any given moment. In a self-created jam, he flipped and now goes to Congress in hopes of pinning responsibility on them, whether we go or not, whether successful or unsuccessful if we do. He is a quite clever demagogue.
C. Obama is a well-meaning and sincere naïf, but a naïf nonetheless. He really believed the world prior to 2009 worked on the premises of the Harvard Law School lounge, Chicago organizing, and Rev. Wright’s Church — or least should have worked on such assumptions. Then when Obama took office, saw intelligence reports, and assumed the responsibilities of our highest office, he was shocked at the dangerous nature of the world! There was no more opportunity for demagoguery or buck-passing, and he had to become serious. In short, it is easy to criticize without power, hard with it to make tough decisions and bad/worse choices. He is slowly learning.
D. Obama is the first president who genuinely feels U.S. exceptionalism and power were not ethically earned and should be in an ethical sense ended. As a candidate, he consistently undermined current U.S. foreign policy at a time of two critical wars; as president, he has systematically forfeited U.S. authority and prestige. There is no inconsistency: whatever makes the traditional idea of the U.S as a superpower weaker, Obama promotes; whatever enhances our profile, he opposes. He is often quite angry at what could be called traditional America — seen often as a downright mean country here and abroad.
Related: VDH talks with veteran Chicago radio host Milt Rosenberg at Milt’s new perch at Ricochet.com, in a 46-minute podcast.