With only days to go before Congress officially resumes its duties, President Obama’s Syria policy is in very deep trouble.
The American people are overwhelmingly opposed. Prospects for passage of a use of force resolution are currently looking very dim in the House, and the President has all but come up empty as he sought international support during his recent foray to Stockholm for the G-20 meetings. POTUS’ unseemly and highly suspect policy zig-zagging has served only to further undermine US credibility internationally, as his chosen path threatens to cripple the use of American power abroad as at no time since the end of the Vietnam War.
So, of course, it must be George W. Bush’s fault.
Yes, that’s right. Bush.
That was James Carville’s explanation for Obama’s difficulties in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. Even now, five years later, it seems that there is no problem that Democrats cannot blame on 43.
But contrary to Carville’s view, shared to some degree or another by many on the left, President Bush’s management of the lead up to the Iraq War stands as a model for how serious Administration’s conduct foreign policy. Instead of laying blame, Team Obama might well have learned valuable lessons had it looked at Bush’s leadership and policy in the 14 months before the Iraq War began.
Explain the Challenge to the American People and Get Their Support: Bush began a year-long effort to educate the American people by laying out the case against Iraq beginning in January 2002. While WMD has in retrospect been viewed in popular consciousness as the sole reason for US military intervention in Iraq, the fact is that beginning in this SOTU, Bush spoke to the broader indictment of Iraqi misbehavior, including its serial violations of UN Security Council resolutions, passed in the aftermath of the Gulf War. By Bush’s count there were at least 10. For the next fourteen months, the Bush administration made its case to the American people. When American troops did finally cross the border into Iraq on March 19, 2003, 72 percent of the American people approved of the operation.
Get Congressional Support: the Administration’s public case against Iraq informed its strategy of thorough outreach and coordination with Congress. Five months in advance of any military action, the Administration sought authority from Congress for potential military action against Iraq. On October 16th, the Iraq War Resolution passed the Republican controlled House 297-133 (with 40 percent of Democrats voting with Bush). In the Democratic controlled Senate, the vote was 77-23 (with 57 percent of Democrats supporting the President).
Get International Diplomatic Support: the Bush administration pressed its case against Iraq internationally through 2002, culminating in Bush’s address to the UN General Assembly in September 2002. Despite today’s selective memories on the reasons for the Iraq operation, Bush’s speech laid out a comprehensive indictment of flagrant and serial violations of UN Security Council resolutions by the Saddam regime on matters from WMD to the treatment of the Iraqi people by their government. It is an irony that for all the subsequent frothing from the left on Bush’s alleged “lawlessness,” the American argument from the very beginning was tightly tied to the UN and international law.
Also forgotten today is that the UN agreed with the Bush administration’s case against Iraq and put it to a vote. On November 8, 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, which stated that Iraq was in material breach of the ceasefire terms presented under the terms of Resolution 687. Indeed, Iraq’s breaches related not only to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but also the known construction of prohibited types of missiles, the purchase and import of prohibited armaments, and the continuing refusal of Iraq to compensate Kuwait for the widespread looting conducted by Iraqi troops during the 1990-91 invasion and occupation. It also stated that “…false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution and failure by Iraq at any time to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq’s obligations.” This statement laid the ground work (but ultimately not approval) of a use of force against Iraq.
Secure Military Allies: the American-led coalition that eventually launched Operation Iraqi Freedom was regularly mocked by the left. Democrats regularly impugned the coalition for the large number of smaller allies, including Iceland, Nicaragua and Honduras. Six days before the invasion took place, former senator (now Secretary of State) John Kerry called the multinational forces poised for the Iraq operation the, “coalition of the coerced and the bribed.” Forgotten today – particularly with an eye toward Syria in the present tense, is that the Bush military coalition included, Britain, Australia, Italy, Japan, Ukraine, Spain and Poland among so many others. To be clear, this wasn’t simply diplomatic support. These countries sent troops.
Have a Clear Military Objective and the Forces to Achieve the Mission: it was controversial then and even more so today, but the Bush policy of regime change in Iraq was clear, focused and achievable. Nine years of subsequent sectarian violence have overshadowed the breath of the initial US victory. US forces traversed 415 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad in 18 days. They beat the Iraqi Army and toppled Saddam’s government taking only 34 casualties. It was a stunning demonstration of US military power to achieve a political objective.
For President Obama and his Syria misadventure, none of these elements are present.
No long-range strategic planning for serious, principled options on Syria. No public affairs campaign to thoughtfully inform the American people to prepare them for the choices the nation faced in possible military conflict. Little congressional coordination until the situation became desperate. An improvised and churlish approach to the UN. A hasty and ad hoc attempt to line up military allies that ultimately backfired. A military plan in a desperate search for purpose and consequence.
What we face today is a profound lack of statesmanship and a fairly epic failure of leadership.
The President is flailing in a pool he filled with his own words and empty threats. By denying that he ever set out a “red line” or that his own credibility was at risk given his “shoot, aim ready” approach to organizing military action against Syria, he further diminishes his authority and creates significant doubts in the minds of allies whose sovereignty depends on America’s good word.
The failures of America’s Syria policy are alarming and manifold. But it is simply not George W. Bush’s fault. Indeed, it may be the supreme irony of Obama’s term that on Syria, the President’s caricature of Bush motives and policy from the 2007-08 campaign became his playbook in 2013.