The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 9, 2013

Old Obama would question new war plans

Clarence Page
The Clinton Herald

---- — President Barack Obama surprised many by deciding to turn to Congress for approval before he fires missiles at Syria, but his decision makes sense. When proposing military action that almost nobody wants to wage, it is best to find someone with whom to share the blame.

That hasn’t been easy, especially after British Parliament voted against joining in Obama’s proposed strikes to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is alleged to have ordered the killing of civilians with chemical weapons. Horrendous as that outrage has been, experts agree that there are no good options for the United States. The best that Obama can hope for is the best of bad options. That means, no matter what he does, a lot of people aren’t going to like it.

Most Americans don’t like it already, polls show. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found nearly six in 10 Americans opposed to missile strikes, with opposition shared by demographic majorities across party, racial and ethnic lines by double-digit margins.

The divided public reflects divisions in Congress. Although House Republican leaders broke their usual pattern of resistance to support the president, the Syria debate has split lawmakers into about a half-dozen unusual factions and coalitions.

Antiwar Democrats coalesce with anti-Obama Republicans. Hawkish Republicans like John McCain have joined hawkish Democrats who want more aggressive military policy and even regime change. Isolationist Republicans like Rand Paul would rather stay home. And there’s the usual Obamaphobic Republicans who want anything that will help the president to fail.

All of which leads me to resurrect an old question: Would Sen. Obama have voted for President Obama’s war?

In a speech at a Chicago antiwar rally in October 2002 that would prove pivotal to his 2008 presidential rise, Obama, than an Illinois state senator, famously made a case against President George W. Bush’s Iraq War that describes why so many oppose his proposed Syria attack.

He did not oppose all wars, he forcefully pointed out, but he opposed “a dumb war. A rash war.” No question that Saddam Hussein was “a brutal man,” said Obama, “... who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” But Obama also pointed out, Saddam “... poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States.”

“(A)n invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East,” Obama said, “and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida.”

The circumstances in Syria are different. Iraq, for example, did not have the weapons of mass destruction that our bogus intelligence reports said they did. By contrast, on Aug. 21 a poison-gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria’s capital, killed more than 1,400 civilians.

But the “clear rationale,” clear goals and “strong international support” that separates smart policy from “dumb” wars is lacking. The errors that led to the tragic war in Iraq and a general war weariness throughout the West have raised the standards of proof that Obama has to meet to wage new military in the Middle East, based on Syria’s brutal use of banned weapons.

In more than three hours of Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on whether to authorize the use of military force against Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left a lot of important questions unanswered.

They expressed much greater certainty about the quality of the intelligence that confirmed Syria’s chemical weapons attacks than about what might happen after the proposed missile strikes were conducted.

A lack of action would embolden Iran and other dangerous regimes, Kerry argued, but all three became rather vague about questions of possible mission creep after the initial operation was conducted.

Gen. Dempsey tried to push back against fears of mission creep, an unexpected expansion beyond original goals. But experience in past wars shows how unpredictably the waging of a “limited” military action breaks the expected limits.

What happens, for example, if our bombing strikes a chemical weapons compound and endangers civilians? Will we need American military boots on the ground to secure it?

Team Obama did not want to speculate about that. But those are the kind of questions that I think Sen. Obama would have asked.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.