If Obama is pursuing the Iraq model, it is certainly not one of active intervention in the manner of George W. Bush in 2003. That direct military intervention is off the table is, of course, a good thing. The United States has no direct interests in Syria. Stymieing Iranian influence and cutting off Hezbollah is a noble goal, of course, but there are much more direct ways of doing so without involving U.S. forces in the Syrian quagmire.
There are two other Iraq models, however. The first is the no-fly zone, a precedent which the U.S. and its allies imposed over northern Iraq in 1991. It was under the protection of the no-fly zone that the Iraqi Kurds were successfully able to build their own alternative to Saddam Hussein. After more than two years of preventable slaughter, the Obama administration has finally begun to consider imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. “Considering” in governance parlance, of course, is one of two ways the White House countenances doing nothing while pretending to do something (the other is attending conferences). Had Obama blessed a no-fly zone two years ago, it might have decided the outcome in Syria before the Syrian opposition radicalized to the degree that it poses as much of a threat to U.S. interests as Assad himself.
Alas, Obama appears intent on another Iraq model, also dating from 1991. As Operation Desert Storm concluded, President George H.W. Bush made a campaign stop to visit workers at a Raytheon plant in Massachusetts, but his real audience was the Iraqi people. “Compliance with the resolutions will instantly stop the bloodshed,” Bush declared, before adding, “And there’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”
What followed is perhaps one of America’s most shameful episodes in the Middle East: The Iraqi people rose up in 14 out of Iraq’s 18 governorates but, rather than support them, Bush stood aside, a move which realists applauded as “sophistication.” It was not. By allowing Saddam to re-consolidate control, Bush set the stage for a far bloodier scenario twelve years later. By turning his back on the Iraqi Shi’ite opposition—and make no mistake, the Iraqi Shi’ites are not naturally pro-Iranian—he allowed the Islamic Republic to fill the void and train refugees into what would become the core of the Shi’ite militias which have consistently undermined U.S. interests. Bush gave every Iraqi reason never again to trust the United States or the American people.
That Obama upholds the elder Bush’s callousness in Syria as a model suggests that he has not the grasp of history he believes he does, and that historians will look back at Obama’s studied indifference as a watershed moment from which a far bloodier episode entangling America will arise.