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Public Opinion, Obama, and Syria

How does a president who came into office decrying foreign interventions rooted in fear of weapons of mass destruction lead a war-weary country and a Congress that is more suspicious than ever of executive power into a complicated conflict in Syria? The answer is clear: Very carefully.

With reports swirling around the Internet predicting U.S. strikes on Syrian targets before the end of the week, it’s clear that the administration’s decision-making process has gone past the point where they were debating whether they would finally do something about Syria. After three years of talking about the Assad regime’s violations of human rights and the president predicting his fall, the use of chemical weapons last week was apparently the final straw. The White House knows that it must act lest the president’s talk of red lines become the epitaph for the failure of its approach to foreign policy. But with one poll showing that 60 percent of Americans think we should not intervene in Syria even if Assad is proven to have used chemical weapons, and with a considerable portion of both parties in Congress also showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea, a policy shift on the issue is going to be a tough sell for the administration.

But as problematic as this sounds, the comparisons being floated in some circles between Obama and Bush aren’t accurate. Barack Obama will not become a focus of anti-war protests over Syria for two reasons: one is that he is Obama and Democrats are always in a far stronger position to go to war than Republicans. The other is that it is probable that the Syrian strike will be a tactical rather than a strategic move. Even though a symbolic strike that leaves Assad untouched and the balance of power in Syria unchanged would be meaningless, Obama is probably still far more concerned about committing the country to another conflict than he is about Assad’s atrocities or the long-term costs of allowing this Iranian ally to survive.

As a liberal Democrat, Obama has an advantage in this situation that no Republican or conservative would possess. Though his party has always had an isolationist left-wing faction, Democrats are, by and large, inclined to support wars or interventions initiated by their party that they would probably oppose if they had been the responsibility of a Republican. Since most Republicans are always ready to follow the flag and support just about any war, even those with little connection to U.S. national interests, that gives a Democratic president something close to carte blanche for starting wars that no Republican could ever claim. That means that no matter how badly things go for the U.S. in a putative Syrian entanglement, the chances of there being massive liberal street protests against the decision are virtually nil.

Since, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, Obama came into the presidency with a constrained view of America’s role in the world and its right to defend its interests and values, it is particularly awkward for him to wake up nine months into his second term of office leading a foreign crusade against a tyrant employing weapons of mass destruction. But the juxtaposition isn’t merely ironic. It’s also why the American response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is likely to be less decisive than it should be. Given the president’s fears of getting stuck in Syria, few believe his response, no matter how noisy or theatrical it may seem at first glance, will involve action that will alter the tide of war or push Assad out.

The Syrian civil war is a mess with bad guys on both sides of the conflict. A rebel victory that placed Damascus into the hands of allies of al-Qaeda would be disastrous. But, after predicting Assad’s fall and warning that his use of chemical weapons would generate consequences, Obama is in no position to throw up his hands and do nothing. Doing so would establish a precedent that the use of chemical weapons brings no consequences from the international community. Even more to the point, an Assad victory would not only show that a dictator could gas his own people with impunity, it would also be a strategic triumph for Iran and Hezbollah, which are heavily invested in the regime’s survival. As such, a failure to act now in Syria would more or less guarantee that Tehran would have no reason to take President Obama’s warning about their development of nuclear weapons seriously.

For all of the skepticism about involvement in Syria, President Obama may have more leeway than he thinks. Though many on the right will instinctively oppose anything he does and some on the left are always leery of foreign interventions, he has the political leeway he needs to do far more than merely lob a few missiles into Assad’s strongholds or knock down some empty buildings. The question today is whether he has the courage to use it. 


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