When Democrats go to war

What was President Obama thinking? The question comes to mind repeatedly after weeks of inscrutable presidential behavior concerning his proposed war — or not war — on Syria.

Obama managed to become the first American president embarrassed and upstaged by a Russian leader since the end of the Cold War. And not just any Russian leader, but Vladimir Putin. A man who frets about gays while he prances around shirtless, cavorting with farm animals. A man whose bizarre rantings even stand out on the op-ed pages of the New York Times (though still better than the average Thomas Friedman column).

But what was Obama trying to accomplish in the first place? Does he, as Nicholas Kristof basically argues, now have Assad right where he wants him? Was this a well thought out plan, or is the president simply slipping from one banana peel to the next, as it appears to the naked eye?

Partisan Democrats have settled on a convenient explanation: authorizing the president to go to war will give him the leverage he needs, a credible military threat, to reach a diplomatic solution.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar to the explanation offered by Democrats who voted for the Iraq war after it became an unmitigated disaster. They would say they voted for the authorization of force not because they wanted to go to war, but because they wanted to give George W. Bush another weapon in his diplomatic arsenal.

This was patent nonsense. George W. Bush had many flaws, but ambiguity about whether he wanted to invade Iraq was not one of them. But Hillary Clinton road-tested this argument even as she prepared to cast her vote for the war.

“I will take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible,” she said. A funny thing to say while one is voting to launch a war, but Clinton did not want us to see it that way.

“Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely, and therefore, war less likely, and because a good faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause, I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation,” Clinton argued.

“My vote is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of pre-emption, or for unilateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose — all of which carry grave dangers for our nation, for the rule of international law and for the peace and security of people throughout the world,” she added.

The post-invasion Iraqi refugees thank you for that, Mrs. Clinton.

Not as succinct as John Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” line, but still momentous. Clinton’s vote for war in order to make war less likely kept her from winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.