August 30, 2013
A Code Pink demonstrator in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
A Code Pink demonstrator in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

With Code Pink protesting outside the White House as the administration grows impatient with United Nations inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, it’s beginning to feel a bit like 2003 in Washington.

The Iraq War is casting a long shadow over a potential  Syria conflict, as even President Obama had to acknowledge. “[We're] not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about,” Obama told PBS NewsHour Wednesday night.

But for all the fears of repeating Bush’s mistakes, Obama is taking the country to war in Syria from an arguably weaker position than Bush did with Iraq 10 years ago.

On public opinion alone, they are worlds apart (and this is a democracy, after all, so such things should matter). “Do you think that the United States should or should not take military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?” a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll asked two days before the bombing began in 2003. A clear majority, 65 percent, said yes, while just 30 percent said no.

Compare that to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out this morning that found that 50 percent of Americans oppose military intervention in Syria, compared with 42 percent who support it. When asked if the U.S. should prioritize removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, just 16 percent of respondents said yes. Now even Republicans are turning against a potential attack, Nate Cohn noted.

Syria is a historical anomaly here as Americans have generally supported military intervention in recent years, from the humanitarian missions of the 1990s to the Bush wars of the 2000s, to the Libya campaign in 2011.

And while Bush’s “coalition of the willing” was a joke, at least he had the United Kingdom. Obama lost London yesterday when Parliament voted to oppose the war effort. “Gosh, it’s as if they’ve had some unpleasant experience working with the United States on an armed adventure in that part of the world,” Jonathan quipped. It was a major defeat, but the Obama administration is nonetheless preparing to go it alone, the New York Times reported:

Although administration officials cautioned that Mr. Obama had not made a final decision, all indications suggest that a strike could occur soon after United Nations investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country. They are scheduled to depart Damascus on Saturday.

“How very Bush-like. Or Bush-lite, I suppose,” Kevin Drum wrote.

Meanwhile, in Congress — and 79 percent of Americans told the NBC pollsters that Obama needs to get congressional approval to attack Syria — there’s mounting opposition to attacking Syria. Yesterday, 53 liberal Democrats sent a letter to President Obama saying that while the regime’s crimes are “horrific,” that alone “should not draw us into an unwise war.” That comes on top of the 140 members of Congress who signed on to a Republican letter cautioning against intervention.

It’s still entirely possible that a resolution to authorize force in Syria would get somewhere in the neighborhood of the 297 votes the Iraq resolution got in late 2002, but there’s hardly the same drumbeat for war coming from members of Congress that we saw back then.

And while the legal foundation for the Iraq war was shaky, at best, the justification for Syria is also pretty dubious. Jon Chait, who notes that he’s “predisposed to favor a punitive air strike against Syria,” explained:

The clearest justifications for military action don’t apply. This is not a case of self-defense, or defense of an ally, or the prevention of genocide. There is an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but Syria didn’t sign it, perhaps correctly calculating that it would one day need to use such weapons. We would be enforcing an informal norm against the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

The sad irony here, Evan McMorris-Santoro and Ben Smith wrote at BuzzFeed today, is that many of the problems facing Obama’s war effort have their root in the failure in Iraq. “We’re now paying for the mistakes of George Bush and it hampers the United States’ ability to do something,” Howard Dean told BuzzFeed.

Fortunately, there seems to be little appetite in the White House for anything near the scale of Iraq  – “just muscular enough not to get mocked,” as an unnamed administration official said — so the actual consequences will never be as bad.

But while it’s infuriating that someone like Donald Rumsfeld is criticizing the White House for failing to justify a potential attack on Syria — it puts him in “the Chutzpah Hall of Fame,” as Steve Benen wrote — it’s even more infuriating that Rumsfeld may be right.