Commentary Magazine


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Syria and the Perils of Partisanship

President Obama’s path to intervention in Syria has been a compendium of every possible mistake a leader can make in terms of diminishing America’s credibility and influence. His last-minute decision to turn to Congress rather than to act on his own authority as he could have and should have and his signals that U.S. strikes would not alter the military equation in Syria have undermined his authority and emboldened isolationists on both the left and the right to oppose his policy. All this has made it difficult if not impossible for many people to view the question of intervention as one of endorsing or opposing the president. For some (though not all) Democrats, who have generally opposed the use of U.S. power abroad to defend American interests or human rights, that means backing Obama on Syria simply because he is the head of their party. On the other hand, that has encouraged some on the right, who have not previously been knee-jerk isolationists, to oppose intervention in Syria simply because it is Obama who is asking for it.

The notion that politics stops at the water’s edge has been largely observed in the breach for decades, yet the openly partisan matter with which this current debate is being conducted may have struck a new low. It is time for conservatives who are saying they can’t support military action under the leadership of Barack Obama to understand the terrible cost such a stand will have not only for American interests but also for the world. Though the country deserves a better leader, he’s the only one we’ve got for the next three years. If Republicans are going to take the same attitude toward the use of force by Washington during this time period in much the same manner they would like to obstruct the implementation of ObamaCare, then it isn’t just Obama who will suffer. Such a position will be a signal to not just Bashar Assad and his use of his chemical arsenal but to the ayatollahs in Iran and their nuclear ambitions that the U.S. is paralyzed.

There are good reasons to worry about whether the president’s proposed intervention in Syria will be effective. The president’s desire to placate his left-wing base has led him to promise that any action will be limited and that he isn’t interested in regime change. Yet at the same time, he continues to say that Assad must go and winks at foreign-policy hawks like Senator John McCain to lead them to think that the plan will have a significant impact on the Syrian regime’s ability to continue slaughtering its people, whether with chemical or conventional weapons. The clear lack of enthusiasm for the mission that has been demonstrated by Joint Chiefs Chair General Martin Dempsey further reinforces the impression that this is a halfhearted effort that will not accomplish much.

Throw in an isolationist movement on the right that has already flexed its muscles on the question of the National Security Agency’s counter-terror activities and the use of drones and its hard to see how the president can find the votes in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives for his resolution. But as our Abe Greenwald wrote on Wednesday, just because the president has, at least so far, failed to make an argument for intervention, doesn’t mean there isn’t one to be made. We must, as Abe wrote, decide what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of America we want to be. If we are now so war-weary or too timid to act against mass murderers then those conservatives who are saying they won’t back force ordered by Obama are consigning the country and the globe to a period in which insanity will be sovereign.

To listen to conservatives now echoing the cynicism of the left during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is disheartening. The issue in Syria really isn’t Barack Obama’s credibility since we already know he hasn’t much to start with. What is at stake in the vote on Syria is whether the United States is prepared to restrain out-of-control regional actors who transgress the norms of international behavior. If we aren’t, then while the GOP is waiting for a president they can respect, the world will become a lot more dangerous than it might otherwise be.