WASHINGTON — America’s chickens are coming home to roost.
The shadows of the Iraq War loom so heavily over President Obama’s attempt to attack Syria that he may not be able to pull off the sort of relatively modest intervention that has been routine for American presidents for half a century. And the ironies come from two sides: On one hand, domestic and international memories of Iraq mean the American president can’t get anyone to trust him. On the other, Obama has resisted the cynical lessons of the Bush Administration’s political successes: That you can’t undersell a war; that you can’t rely on international good will; and that you can’t, as Bush aide Andy Card notoriously said, launch a new product in August.
Now, Obama finds himself cast as Bush — without the results. And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a butcher whose crimes need no exaggeration and whose victims are recent, is in some ways a better fit for the role into which Bush put Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whose worst crimes were behind him. Iraq War boosters invoked Saddam’s 1980s gas attacks; but Assad stands accused of gassing civilians last week.
Yet as Thursday’s vote against intervention in the British Parliament proved, Obama can’t get even partners Bush did to go after Assad. And opponents of the Iraq War say Bush has boxed Obama into a corner.
“The problem is Obama can’t deal with Assad with even a much milder military attack because of the loss of credibility of the United States under Bush,” said Howard Dean, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who made his name on opposing the war in Iraq and whose campaign laid the groundwork for Obama’s. “There is an irony there that we’re now paying for the mistakes of George Bush and it hampers the United States’ ability to do something about somebody murdering his own people with weapons that are clearly against international law to use.”
Dean was quick to say he didn’t know what he would do were he in the Oval Office instead of Obama, but he did say that the vote in Parliament — an echo of the Iraq conflict both he and Obama opposed — was a major setback to Obama’s plans for intervention. Prior to the British vote, Dean said he favored strikes on Assad’s air force and other military targets. Without America’s closest ally, the path forward is much less clear, Dean said.
“It’s going to be really hard at this point to have a unilateral attack with cruise missiles without the Brits and nobody else with us,” he said.
The collapse of British support for a strike on Syria is a particular inheritance from Iraq. David Cameron, Obama’s Tory ally and the newest client of Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, abandoned the American president after seeing the shadow of his local ghost, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose leadership and legacy were badly damaged by his support for Bush in Iraq. Blair’s foes saw the irony there.”
“Syrians pay the price for Blair’s lies over Iraq,” tweeted Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and bitter Iraq War critic.
Obama is also facing a press that earned its own lesson from Iraq: It wants clearer proof that Assad used chemical weapons. Outlets willing to jump on the American push to attack Iraq are dragging their feet as the White House pushes for action in Syria. Obama, meanwhile, appeared Wednesday a page from Bush’s book, warning that letting Bashir Assad and his regime go unpunished after the chemical attacks could lead to eventual chemical attacks on Americans.
That was a half-hearted gambit. Amid wide skepticism and open hostility who remembered the Bush era warnings not to let the smoking gun come in the form of a mushroom cloud, the White House walked it back. Spokesman Josh Earnest clarified that the president meant “was referring to our critical national security interests in the region,” and “American facilities in the region” — not to a danger that chemical weapons could be used against American citizens here.
Obama is stuck in the world Bush left him, playing the role of a war president without Bush’s conviction. The open political role, now, is for the young Democratic champion to stand up against her president. And some of the most promising figures in Congress, including a rising star from Hawaii, have sought to slow the planned attack on Syria.
“Right now, we do not have enough facts about all facets of what is occurring on the ground, the factions involved in this civil war, and what the unintended consequences would be for U.S. military involvement,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran of the Iraq War and a leading figure in a new, Obama generation of Democrats, said in a statement. “Congressional debate and approval must occur before any U.S. military action is taken, and through this process we need to have a clear-eyed view of our objectives and what the outcomes would be, understanding the impacts in Syria, and those that extend far beyond Syria.”
For their part, Obama and the White House have worked hard to say Syria is not Iraq, and will not become Iraq.
“We can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about,” Obama told PBS Wednesday night.
But despite his hopes to cast this conflict as something different, the reactions from the media and the international community have made clear that the memory of Iraq will be hard to escape. And that means Obama may have to behave a lot more like his predecessor than many of his supporters would ever have predicted.