The debate over Syria is a jumble of metaphors, proof that every discussion of military action involves an argument about the last war. Yet beneath the surface, the fight in Congress over President Obama’s proposed strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime is a struggle to break free from earlier syndromes to set a new course.
Obama himself is using the imperative that he back up his “red line” against chemical weapons as an occasion to revisit his Syrian strategy. And both of our political parties are emerging from a post-9/11 period of frozen foreign policy thinking to a more natural and intellectually honest exchange over America’s long-term role in the world.
The mood of the public and of many in Congress is summarized easily: “No more Iraqs.” It’s a sensible impulse because the Iraq war never delivered on the promises of those who urged the country to battle. Especially among Democrats who initially endorsed the war, there is a lingering guilt that they never asked the Bush administration the questions that needed to be posed. Belatedly, those queries — about what the intelligence shows and what our goals are — are now being directed to Obama on Syria.
Still, there is another reaction among Democrats and liberals, including Obama. It is a return to a pre-Iraq view that shaped the Clinton administration’s policies in Bosnia and Kosovo after it failed to stop the Rwandan genocide: There are times when American power can be used to keep local wars from flying out of control, to prevent or limit humanitarian catastrophes and, yes, to advance the country’s interests.
Many Democrats supported Bush on Iraq because they mistakenly placed the war in the context of a humanitarian intervention. Yet this guardedly interventionist wing of the party also includes people such as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who opposed the commitment in Iraq but never stopped believing in the positive uses of American military power. These Democrats are swinging Obama’s way on Syria not for partisan reasons but because he shares their position in the quarrel inside the party.
Nonetheless, Obama faces substantial resistance among Democrats because Vietnam and Iraq turned a large section of the party into principled noninterventionists who set an extremely high bar to any use of America’s armed forces. The same can be said of libertarian Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash. This left-right anti-war coalition has a long American pedigree, going back to the periods before both World War I and World War II.
But that only begins to describe the complexity of the argument on the Republican side. Many in the party instinctively skeptical of foreign entanglements suppressed their doubts during the Bush years. With a Democrat in the White House and 9/11 more than a decade behind us, they now feel they can express them again. This group overlaps with a GOP faction whose one driving ideology involves standing against anything Obama is for.
Republican interventionists, in the meantime, are divided among themselves. Neoconservatives such as Sen. John McCain have an expansive attitude toward deploying American forces and still believe in the Iraq war. Realists such as Sen. Bob Corker do not want a repeat of Iraq but are willing to give Obama a limited mandate to act in Syria. House Speaker John Boehner rather bravely urged passage of a resolution on Syria, knowing that inaction there would undermine a tough approach toward Iran. He finds himself somewhere between these two camps.
Ultimately, after intricate negotiations, the balance of power among all these factions will almost certainly give the president the congressional victory he needs to take action — in part because majorities in both houses know that an Obama defeat on Syria would be devastating to American foreign policy. Wednesday’s 10 to 7 Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote for a resolution was a sign of things to come.
And by forcing this necessary vote in Congress, Obama has forced himself to recalibrate a Syrian strategy that had reached a dead end and to clarify his goals. He is stepping up support for more moderate Syrian opposition elements and his plans to “degrade” Assad’s military are more extensive than simply a warning shot. But he remains deeply wary of committing American troops on the ground.
With luck, Obama will get by this crisis while sending a strong message of American determination to uphold international norms. In the longer run, despite the repeated references to the recent past, the Syria debate signals that the country is finally liberating itself from the shackles imposed during the Bush years on an open discussion of our country’s interests and purposes. Democracy is often slow, but it eventually works.