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.
But Kerry’s responsibility-dodging on Iraq was also something to behold. In an interview with Rolling Stone before the 2004 election, he talked about all the different reasons Bush gave for invading Iraq. “Why do you think we really invaded Iraq?” Rolling Stone asked. “I can’t psychoanalyze them,” Kerry sighed. “They were driven by ideology; they were driven by a fixation on Saddam Hussein.”
They were driven by a congressional authorization of force, for which Kerry voted! Nowhere in that interview does Kerry own up to the fact that he voted for the war. In a previous interview with the same magazine, he was almost as evasive: “I voted for what I thought was best for the country. Did I expect Howard Dean to go off to the left and say, ‘I’m against everything’? Sure. Did I expect George Bush to f – – k it up as badly as he did? I don’t think anybody did.”
So Kerry votes for a war, but it’s all George Bush’s fault. And it was mean of Howard Dean to be “against everything,” like the war Kerry authorized and Bush f–ked up.
Kerry’s position on Iraq was hopelessly muddled during his presidential campaign. He basically seemed to be saying he would manage the Iraq war more competently. After watching Kerry try merely to sell Syria, the issue of his superior competence can now safely be put to rest. He has an unbelievably small level of competence.
Which brings us back to what Obama was thinking. His foreign policy is based on the premise he can be as interventionist as he wants provided he does not put American boots on the ground. The unpopularity of American casualties seems to have been his only takeaway from Iraq.
As far as domestic politics is concerned, he is probably right. After the president’s unconstitutional war in Libya, the country remains a hellhole where they kill our diplomats and steal our weapons. But even after Benghazi, Libya did not do to Obama’s presidency what Iraq deservedly did to Bush’s.
But just because preventive war and regime change can be done on the cheap from the air doesn’t mean there aren’t still unintended consequences. Obama thought he would be able to lob a few cruise missiles at Syria, mumble about red lines in the Rose Garden and then call it a day.
When Bob Dole groused at the 1976 vice presidential debate about “Democrat wars,” it was seen as a gaffe. But maybe the old man had a point.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?“ Follow him on Twitter.