The debate over whether to intervene militarily in Syria is the final break in a long-splintering relationship between President Obama and the antiwar movement. Antiwar activists played an important role in the president’s 2008 campaign, helping Obama defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries and Republican nominee John McCain in the general election.
But five years later, a broad coalition of liberal groups that make up the antiwar movement is more likely to oppose the president on foreign policy. And on Syria, the groups successfully pressured Democrats on Capitol Hill to defy Obama, weakening him in the process.
Antiwar activists have run television and print ads, held rallies, organized petitions and blanketed congressional switchboards — all with messages of opposition to the president.
“This moment around Syria
is a high-water mark for progressives speaking out on military policy or foreign policy under Obama,” said Anna Galland,
the executive director of
MoveOn.org. “We strongly and publicly broke with the president on foreign policy for the first time.”
A surprise Russian proposal this week that Syria turn over
its chemical weapons provided Obama a way out of a potentially embarrassing defeat on Capitol Hill, where both Republicans and Democrats were prepared to reject his request for the authority to strike the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Yet it’s unclear whether diplomatic negotiations will ultimately resolve the standoff, meaning that Obama may again choose to turn to lawmakers for support. Obama’s second term could include similar debates over military interventions in other countries as well, including Iran and North Korea.
The Syria experience suggests that Obama would face not only skepticism from Republicans, who have attacked him for his handling of the situation, but also strong opposition from the left. It comes as part of a growing list of grievances among liberals about Obama’s national security policy.
Doing the unthinkable
Initially, the left complained that Obama was too slow to withdraw troops from Iraq and wrong to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan. They were frustrated by his failure to persuade Congress to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
And more recently, they have protested his expansive use of drone warfare and his strong support for surveillance programs.
“He does things that would be unthinkable from a antiwar perspective,” said Tom Hayden, a longtime activist who created an organization to marshal liberals in support of Obama in 2008. “I think a lot of people thought he would do a better job for us.”