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Topic: Syria intervention vote

Obama Starts to Walk Back Syria Threats

Never mind. You don’t have read too far between the lines of a series of interviews President Obama has just given to several news networks to understand that what we may be seeing this week is not so much the titanic struggle in Congress about authorizing the use of force against Syria as a slow-motion walk-back of the White House’s intentions to launch air strikes against the Assad regime. It will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes and thus the vote in the Senate is being put off. Which means the arguments we’ve been having about the issue are now unofficially moot. Game, set, and match to Assad, Iran, and Russia and complete defeat for Obama and those who supported the faltering president.

In the interviews the president conveyed not only his trademark ambivalence about the use of force but also a crucial shift in his phrasing about his plans for punishing Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against their own people. By referring to the “threat” of strikes rather than his actual intentions, he made it clear that he wants to slow down the process by which Congress would vote on the proposals that he floated in the last couple of weeks. In part, this reflects the political reality in which the president has failed to rally support—either in the general public or Congress—for a principled stand against Assad’s atrocities. But by grasping on to the foolish proposal put forward by Secretary of State Kerry today to embrace a Russian offer to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons (authoritatively debunked by our Max Boot), Obama appears to be waving the white flag on the whole controversy. Since this is an idea that has little chance of being effectively implemented, the president is using it as an excuse to weasel his way out of a fight that he wasn’t tough enough to fight or win. If so, it will be a fitting, if disgraceful, end to an episode of almost unprecedented incompetence and cowardice that will put an end to any pretensions Obama might have had about being anything but a lame duck until the end of his term of office.

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Never mind. You don’t have read too far between the lines of a series of interviews President Obama has just given to several news networks to understand that what we may be seeing this week is not so much the titanic struggle in Congress about authorizing the use of force against Syria as a slow-motion walk-back of the White House’s intentions to launch air strikes against the Assad regime. It will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes and thus the vote in the Senate is being put off. Which means the arguments we’ve been having about the issue are now unofficially moot. Game, set, and match to Assad, Iran, and Russia and complete defeat for Obama and those who supported the faltering president.

In the interviews the president conveyed not only his trademark ambivalence about the use of force but also a crucial shift in his phrasing about his plans for punishing Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against their own people. By referring to the “threat” of strikes rather than his actual intentions, he made it clear that he wants to slow down the process by which Congress would vote on the proposals that he floated in the last couple of weeks. In part, this reflects the political reality in which the president has failed to rally support—either in the general public or Congress—for a principled stand against Assad’s atrocities. But by grasping on to the foolish proposal put forward by Secretary of State Kerry today to embrace a Russian offer to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons (authoritatively debunked by our Max Boot), Obama appears to be waving the white flag on the whole controversy. Since this is an idea that has little chance of being effectively implemented, the president is using it as an excuse to weasel his way out of a fight that he wasn’t tough enough to fight or win. If so, it will be a fitting, if disgraceful, end to an episode of almost unprecedented incompetence and cowardice that will put an end to any pretensions Obama might have had about being anything but a lame duck until the end of his term of office.

Since the signals of retreat on Syria coming from the White House today seem to put a period on even the most remote hope that the administration can find the will to act on Syria, it’s time for the second-guessing and recriminations about the president’s staggering incompetence to begin with a vengeance.

There’s little doubt that if the president had matched his predictions of Assad’s fall with even minimal action two years ago when the rebellion began in Syria, the results would have been very different. Assad would probably not have survived, let alone go on to largely win the war against the rebels, as he seems to have now done. Islamist radicals would not have gained a foothold in the country and the apparent victory of the regime would not enhance the power and prestige of Assad’s ally Iran. Nor would we have been treated to the spectacle of the president enunciating a “red line” about chemical weapons and then not enforcing it.

But let’s forget about what might have happened two years ago and just concentrate on the last month. Had the president acted expeditiously and struck quickly without punting the ball to Congress (as he need not have done using the authority granted him by the War Powers Act), there would have been no test of American credibility. By demanding the right to use force and then backing away Obama has trashed his credibility and that of the United States.

While the administration will attempt to spin their embrace of the Russian proposal as some kind of victory, the American people know better. What we have just witnessed is one of the most discreditable displays of presidential leadership in our history. Though I think those who have argued against the use of force against Syria were wrong, I cannot fault those who said President Obama was not to be trusted with the power that he sought. By surrendering even before he began to fight, the president has done more to trash his reputation as a leader in the last two weeks than five years of Republican criticism.

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Leftist Roots Trump Obama for J Street

The irony is delicious. In the fall of 2008, the leaders of the J Street lobby boldly asserted their group’s coming preeminence as the leading voice in Washington about Israel over the more established AIPAC. The reason for that confidence was J Street’s close ties to the incoming Obama administration. Pointing to the huge majority of Jewish votes won by the Democrat in the 2008 election, J Street not only claimed that its views were more representative of American Jewry but that it would serve as a necessary pro-Obama counterweight to what they falsely claimed was an AIPAC that favored Republicans. But fast forward to September 2013 and the reality of the alignment of these two groups is vastly different from what J Street propagandists were saying a few years ago. Not only is J Street a shadow of the liberal behemoth that some expected would lead the discussion about the Middle East, disconnected from public opinion in Israel and bereft of influence on Capitol Hill or in the White House. It is also at odds with the man they once served as his main Jewish cheerleaders.

While AIPAC has reacted to the president’s puzzling decision to pass off responsibility to Congress for a strike on Syria by mobilizing its resources to back him up on the issue, J Street is standing on the sidelines of a vote that will have huge implications for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East. In doing so, J Street is not only burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years. It’s also showing that their leftist roots as the Jewish rump of the MoveOn.org movement trumps their loyalty to the president or to the cause of human rights.

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The irony is delicious. In the fall of 2008, the leaders of the J Street lobby boldly asserted their group’s coming preeminence as the leading voice in Washington about Israel over the more established AIPAC. The reason for that confidence was J Street’s close ties to the incoming Obama administration. Pointing to the huge majority of Jewish votes won by the Democrat in the 2008 election, J Street not only claimed that its views were more representative of American Jewry but that it would serve as a necessary pro-Obama counterweight to what they falsely claimed was an AIPAC that favored Republicans. But fast forward to September 2013 and the reality of the alignment of these two groups is vastly different from what J Street propagandists were saying a few years ago. Not only is J Street a shadow of the liberal behemoth that some expected would lead the discussion about the Middle East, disconnected from public opinion in Israel and bereft of influence on Capitol Hill or in the White House. It is also at odds with the man they once served as his main Jewish cheerleaders.

While AIPAC has reacted to the president’s puzzling decision to pass off responsibility to Congress for a strike on Syria by mobilizing its resources to back him up on the issue, J Street is standing on the sidelines of a vote that will have huge implications for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East. In doing so, J Street is not only burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years. It’s also showing that their leftist roots as the Jewish rump of the MoveOn.org movement trumps their loyalty to the president or to the cause of human rights.

That J Street should be aligning itself with the isolationists on both the left and the right against the administration shouldn’t be any surprise. Despite their boasts about representing the mainstream of Jewish opinion in this country, it has always been a creature of the isolationist left. Though opposition to Syria intervention is widely unpopular, J Street might have been expected to rally to President Obama’s side in what is probably the most crucial moment of his second term. If Congress fails to grant him authority to attack Syria his credibility is shot at home and abroad and we might as well hang a sign around his neck saying “lame duck.”

But the MoveOn.org crowd from which J Street sprung does not share the president’s apparent ambivalence about the use of U.S. power even when used against a Syrian dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people. They are always against it. While J Street belatedly condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons their outrage over this crime wasn’t enough to convince the leaders of the group to back up the president whose stands on Israel once enthralled them.

I deplore J Street’s belief that the U.S should use its status as Israel’s only ally to pressure it to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. But do they think America’s capacity to use its influence in the Middle East will be enhanced by the evisceration of Obama’s ability to lead on foreign affairs by Congress? It is that reason that the pro-Israel community in this country which largely disagrees with J Street’s calls for pressure on Israel has weighed in on the president’s behalf. AIPAC was loath to involve itself in the squabble in Syria because it rightly felt that Israel favored neither side in the Syrian civil war. But a United States that is no longer capable of stepping up to punish those who use weapons of mass destruction in this manner is also an America that has been effectively rendered irrelevant in the Middle East. No matter what you think about the fighting in Syria or about the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, that should be a big problem for those who purport to speak for pro-Israel opinion in this country.

Nevertheless, it should be conceded that J Street’s opposition to Obama on Syria wouldn’t decrease its influence in Washington. That’s because it has none. Though it has been cheering wildly for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart peace talks, it’s been out of touch with the administration’s attitude toward Israel since the beginning of 2012 when the president began a Jewish “charm offensive” in order to help his reelection. J Street loved it when Obama was picking fights with Israel during his first three years in office, but even then it was clear the White House understood just how insignificant a player the group was. That it must now look to AIPAC for help on Syria again demonstrates not only the mainstream lobby’s importance but also how foolish J Street’s attacks on it have been.

When push comes to shove, it appears J Street’s core beliefs about the illegitimacy of American power will always trump its claim to want to bolster Israel or even Obama. If few have noticed that they’ve abandoned the president, it’s largely because their hard-core ideological approach to issues always rendered it a marginal force even in Democratic councils, let alone the public square they once thought to dominate.

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Why I’m Against a Military Strike On Syria

One of the strongest arguments for voting “yes” on authorizing strikes against Syria is that a “no” vote will do significant damage to the credibility of the United States.

“It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked his credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written. “But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.”

That’s a very reasonable case. But it’s one that’s worth examining with some care.

It’s quite true, and I believe quite regrettable, that American credibility will suffer if the president is denied the authority he seeks. But it’s not clear to me that if Mr. Obama gets the authority to strike Syria, American credibility will be that much greater. 

I say that for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the strike the president intends to deliver is not meant to alter the balance of power in Syria. The president himself has described what he intends to do as a “shot across the bow”–a revealing locution, since a “shot across the bow” means a harmless strike. Mr. Obama has signaled, in as many ways as he can, that a strike in Syria is meant to be de minimis. And Secretary of State John Kerry, in London earlier today, put it this way: “We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” [emphasis added].

Is it possible that the president unleashes his inner John McCain and decides to alter the course of the Syrian civil war? I suppose so, but let’s just say it’s highly unlikely. Let’s assume, then, that the president does what he’s said he would do. How much credibility would that have?

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One of the strongest arguments for voting “yes” on authorizing strikes against Syria is that a “no” vote will do significant damage to the credibility of the United States.

“It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked his credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written. “But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.”

That’s a very reasonable case. But it’s one that’s worth examining with some care.

It’s quite true, and I believe quite regrettable, that American credibility will suffer if the president is denied the authority he seeks. But it’s not clear to me that if Mr. Obama gets the authority to strike Syria, American credibility will be that much greater. 

I say that for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the strike the president intends to deliver is not meant to alter the balance of power in Syria. The president himself has described what he intends to do as a “shot across the bow”–a revealing locution, since a “shot across the bow” means a harmless strike. Mr. Obama has signaled, in as many ways as he can, that a strike in Syria is meant to be de minimis. And Secretary of State John Kerry, in London earlier today, put it this way: “We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” [emphasis added].

Is it possible that the president unleashes his inner John McCain and decides to alter the course of the Syrian civil war? I suppose so, but let’s just say it’s highly unlikely. Let’s assume, then, that the president does what he’s said he would do. How much credibility would that have?

Abdel Jabbar Akaidi, the Free Syrian Army’s chief for Aleppo province, has said, “a light strike would be worse than doing nothing. If it’s not the death blow, this game helps the regime even more. The Syrian people will only suffer more death and devastation when the regime retaliates.” Senator McCain has said the same thing.

So the option isn’t between no strike at all and a massive strike that delivers a crushing blow to the Assad regime. The choice is between no strike and, if the president and his secretary of state are to be believed, an “unbelievably small,” inconsequential one. Are we then supposed to believe the latter would salvage America’s credibility? That the Iranian regime–which has not been slowed by anyone or anything to date–will be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons after a strike against Syria that was only undertaken because the president had boxed himself into a corner and from which Bashar al-Assad will emerge undamaged and still in power? That is simply implausible, especially given Mr. Obama’s larger record of irresolution and incompetence.

No president in my lifetime has been more ambivalent about the use of American power; and if Mr. Obama does strike Syria, Peggy Noonan poses the right question: “If we bomb Syria, will the world say, ‘Oh, how credible America is!’ or will they say, ‘They just bombed people because they think they have to prove they’re credible’?” The restoration of American credibility will probably have to await a new American president (think of Reagan following Carter).

And what will Mr. Obama’s strike succeed in doing? It will involve us in a brutal and immensely complicated civil war that would test the skills of even the greatest statesmen. Dexter Filkins, one of the finest war reporters in America, has said the civil war in Syria is “a more violent and unpredictable conflict than any I’ve ever seen.” The rebels, he says, are scattered and divided. Al Nusra Front, a sister organization of al-Qaeda, has “emerged as the strongest group among many.” Ambassador Ryan Crocker, one of America’s finest diplomats, has written that the opposition to Assad “lacks cohesion and organization” and agrees that the most radical elements have demonstrated the greatest discipline. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can hope to do is contain it.”

There are other, serious interpretations of the circumstances on the ground. But even advocates of a military strike against Syria would concede, I think, that the conditions for a political settlement simply are not in place. And what exactly has President Obama achieved to warrant confidence that he can navigate these violent waters and positively influence events in Syria? His mastery of events in Egypt? Iraq? Iran? Libya? Afghanistan? His reset with Russia? His skillful handling of our allies like Great Britain? The Czech Republic and Poland? Israel? Please cite for me the example we can look to that will inspire confidence that the president is up to the challenges posed by Syria. If such an example exists, it has eluded me. 

Which brings me to my final point. As a person who favors American engagement in the world–who has supported American interventions over the years, who believed we should support the relatively moderate Syrian rebels some time ago and who supported President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan–my concern is that for America to become militarily involved in Syria at this stage may well end up doing grave damage to the cause of internationalism. It could do more, in fact, to help the quasi-isolationist movement in the GOP than anything else–including denying Mr. Obama the authority he seeks. 

For the United States to go to war with around a quarter of the nation supporting intervention–even before the bombing has started–is a very dicey and unsettling proposition. If we get militarily involved in Syria and things go badly–which I think is likely, given both the intrinsic nature of the conflict and the ineptness of our commander-in-chief–it will strengthen, not weaken, the Rand Paul wing of the GOP.

To put it another way: Those who favor an active role by America in the world–hawks who have spent their lives rightly resisting the “America Come Home” siren call–need to be wise in their counsel. Because if the next military engagement isn’t well thought out, well executed, and doesn’t lead to a relatively swift and decent outcome, the blowback could be intense. Syria could do to America what George McGovern never could.

In saying all this, I recognize that I’m out of step with many people whose judgment I respect and with whom I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder over many years. Nor do I think the decision on the authorization of force is an obvious one. There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides and potential downsides to each course of action. On top of that, we’re talking about predicting how a series of events will unfold in a Middle Eastern nation riven by war, sectarian divisions, and hatreds that reach back generations, which ought to elicit from us a touch of humility rather than certitude.

All we can do, all we can ever do, is to bring our best judgment to bear on the situation we face. The issue hinges on whether one believes a pointless and ill-considered strike by this president against the Syrian regime does more or less damage than a congressional “no” vote that would make America even more of a non-entity in international affairs. 

I will confess that I’m not fully comfortable with my position. But I’m more comfortable with it than the alternative. 

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Assad’s Threats Are a Godsend to Obama

If Bashar Assad thought issuing threats against America in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS was his chance to convince Congress to reject President Obama’s plan to attack the Syrian regime, he has made a terrible miscalculation. There is no shortage of skeptics about the administration’s plan for an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria. But the notion that Assad can intimidate the United States into leaving him alone to use chemical weapons on his own people is risible.

That’s not just because Assad’s warnings that the U.S. “should expect everything” from both the Syrian government and its allies in response to an American strike is a largely empty threat. It’s that he might have been better off letting a chronically incompetent Obama remain the face of the argument about Syrian intervention rather than injecting his own criminal personality into the debate in Congress and the American public square. Indeed, the only way to change the momentum in the fight to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in favor of the administration might be if the argument switches from one pitting Obama against his critics to another that matches the Syrian dictator against the president. While one miscalculated interview by Assad might not be enough to turn the tide in a political battle in which both the right and the left seem unprepared to back the president—albeit for slightly different reasons—it is a break for a White House that appears to be running into a stone wall when it comes to appealing for congressional approval.

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If Bashar Assad thought issuing threats against America in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS was his chance to convince Congress to reject President Obama’s plan to attack the Syrian regime, he has made a terrible miscalculation. There is no shortage of skeptics about the administration’s plan for an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria. But the notion that Assad can intimidate the United States into leaving him alone to use chemical weapons on his own people is risible.

That’s not just because Assad’s warnings that the U.S. “should expect everything” from both the Syrian government and its allies in response to an American strike is a largely empty threat. It’s that he might have been better off letting a chronically incompetent Obama remain the face of the argument about Syrian intervention rather than injecting his own criminal personality into the debate in Congress and the American public square. Indeed, the only way to change the momentum in the fight to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in favor of the administration might be if the argument switches from one pitting Obama against his critics to another that matches the Syrian dictator against the president. While one miscalculated interview by Assad might not be enough to turn the tide in a political battle in which both the right and the left seem unprepared to back the president—albeit for slightly different reasons—it is a break for a White House that appears to be running into a stone wall when it comes to appealing for congressional approval.

As for worries about Assad’s threats, it is probably unwise to completely discount the willingness of a man who has already gassed innocent civilians to commit mayhem. But the fact that the Syrian regime’s atrocities have been focused on civilians—including women and children—who are unable to defend themselves should tell us a lot about Assad’s capabilities when it comes to retaliating against the United States. After all, as we know, Israel has repeatedly struck at Syria’s missile arsenal and other weapon convoys in the last year without generating any kind of military response from Assad’s regime or his Iranian and Hezbollah allies. It also should be remembered that the Israelis took out Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 without a blow from Assad in return. The reason for the Syrian timidity in the face of repeated Israeli attacks to prevent the regime from gaining nuclear capability or transferring dangerous weapons to Hezbollah was obvious. Assad knew his already beleaguered forces didn’t stand a chance if pitted against the Israel Defense Forces. When that factor is weighed against Assad’s current bluster, does anyone seriously believe Syria’s military or its terrorist auxiliaries would be any more eager for a match-up against the far more formidable forces of the United States?

But the point here is that Assad would have been far better keeping quiet right now rather than giving the administration more talking points as it attempts to convince Congress that American credibility is on the line in the vote on Syria. If either the Senate or the House turns down a resolution on force against Assad, the dictator will not just be given a proverbial free get-out-of-jail Monopoly game card. He will also be able to boast to his people that the Americans quailed in the face of his threats of violence.

So long as the debate in Congress is about the war-weariness of the American people and their lack of interest in what happens in Syria no matter how beastly Assad might be, Obama loses. But if the argument can be refocused, as it should be, on the spectacle of a murderous dictator allied with Iran and Hezbollah given impunity to commit mass atrocities, then the president stands a chance.

The congressional vote will be probably far more influenced by polls showing overwhelming opposition by the American people to involvement in Syria as well as by Obama’s personal appeals than anything Assad can say. But by opening his mouth and making idiotic threats and transparent lies about his regime’s culpability, Assad has given the president a small opening which he might use to convince wavering members of Congress.

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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.

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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. 

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