Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.
But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:
Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.
Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.
If we learned from Iraq that removing a dictator with force makes us responsible for all that comes next, then surely Obama believes the U.S. takes at least some responsibility for the violence in the wake of the removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And lest the president or his supporters downplay the American role, here is how Obama himself sees the situation, as he expressed in a debate with Mitt Romney last year:
But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.
Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us. But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing.
Unambiguous: our involvement in Libya was to remove Gaddafi from power and shepherd the political transition. And shame on anyone, goes the president’s forceful argument, who would even suggest otherwise. Well, today is of course the anniversary not only of the September 11, 2001 attacks but also those carried out on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year.
And the situation there has not improved. As the Washington Post reported last week:
Even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets. Kidnappings and armed robberies are increasing, and government officials and others have been assassinated with guns and bombs. Militants and arms smugglers easily cross poorly protected borders shared with Niger and Chad….
“It’s impossible,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim Sherif, the Tripoli police chief, who blamed the government for failing to properly fund and equip his officers….
In the face of spiking numbers of kidnappings and armed robberies, he said, his officers rarely attempt to arrest anyone because “they have more guns than we do.” He said arrest attempts stopped after several incidents in which his cops were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.
It’s certainly, it should be noted, in worse shape than Iraq, and might have made for a better example of the argument the president was trying to make. But the Iraq example is relevant for another reason. In justifying military action against Syria, President Obama asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”
That wasn’t the only time the president seemed to make the case that military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was taken later than it should have been. Earlier in the speech, Obama said this:
As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.
If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.
This is not a world we should accept.
Of course, military action can be taken any number of ways following any number of strategies. But Obama wasn’t just against the way the war in Iraq was prosecuted. This was the war he called a “dumb war.” In that famous 2002 speech, Obama said that he has “no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” However, Obama then added:
I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.
How vigorously Obama now apparently disagrees with that assessment.