On Tuesday, President Obama was set to deliver a speech to the American people trying to convince them, and Congress, of the need to bomb Syria for its use of chemical weapons. Things changed when a plan was put forth for Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and the President’s speech changed from laying out the causes for war, to a speech asking for Congress to hold off its vote to use military forces against Syria.
Many Americans were overjoyed. The war was off. There wouldn’t be any bombing missions in Syria. We avoided another Iraq War. President Obama didn’t repeat the mistakes of George W. Bush. However, in the proposed deal to hold off U.S. strikes in return for Assad giving up his chemical weapons, President Obama has not followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps – he’s instead following in George H.W. Bush’s and Ronald Reagan’s footsteps.
In the Iraq-Iran War, fought in the 1980s, President Reagan gave military aid, equipment, intelligence and other support to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, while also secretly supplying military arms to Iran, in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair. We were supplying both sides, perhaps in the hope that whoever won would be friends with us. It turned out for ill, as Saddam Hussein soon invaded Kuwait and that started the Gulf War, while Iran remains a problem to this day.
President Reagan also gave military and financial aid to Afghanistan, during the Soviet Union’s invasion of that country. In doing so, we armed the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.
He also invaded Grenada, without Congressional approval.
President Obama is repeating these same mistakes. The Obama administration once referred to the Syrian President as a “reformer”, and now he is a war criminal. The United States has also been supplying machine guns and anti-tank weaponry to the Syrian rebels for weeks. And, lastly, in his rose garden address, President Obama stated that he believed he had a right to bomb Syria without Congressional approval, and has previously used Reagan’s invasion as Grenada as a justification.
Next, and bigger still, is President Obama’s similarity to George H.W. Bush’s mistakes.
Following the Iraq-Iran War, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds, killing upwards of a hundred thousand civilians. Hussein’s usage of chemical weapons was undeniable. He then proceeded to invade Kuwait, leading George H.W. Bush to set a red line, famously saying, “This will not stand.” Thus began the Gulf War.
However, rather than removing Hussein from power, and making him answer for his war crimes, President Bush chose not to exceed his mandate to protect Kuwait. He left Hussein in power. For nearly ten years, Hussein impeded weapons inspectors, defied U.N. resolutions, shot at U.S. planes, paid bounties to families of suicide bombers against Israel, continued to threaten the region, and brutalized his own people. This went on until George W. Bush finally stepped up and removed him from power.
This is all strikingly similar to the situation in Syria. A dictator, once supported by the United States, has killed a hundred thousand of his own people with chemical weapons. But if he gives up his weapons of mass destruction, we will let him remain in power.
We wouldn’t have had the Iraq War if George H.W. Bush hadn’t left Saddam Hussein in power. The military was already there, Hussein was on his heels, and we let him go. Now, military forces are outside Syria, Assad is threatened, and we make a deal to leave him in power.
Even if negotiations work out, and Assad gives up his chemical weapons, the result will be no different than when George H.W. Bush let Saddam Hussein stay in power. We avoid a war now, but we have to deal with Assad for the next ten years until he becomes too great a problem to ignore, or until he commits a new crime more heinous than the last, compelling us to take action.
President Obama might’ve kept us out of one war today, but what he’s really done has kicked the can to future Presidents. Like Woodrow Wilson, the chant will be, “He kept us out of war.” People will talk about how he used diplomacy as a solution rather than military force. How he disarmed a dictator. But the problem of Syria is not solved, no less than George H.W. Bush solved the problem of Saddam Hussein.
So even though President Obama might’ve gone a different path than George W. Bush in this instance, he has still repeated past mistakes. Maybe ten years from now we’ll look back on this and wish Obama had gotten Congressional approval, that he had removed Assad, or that he hadn’t given the rebels weapons, which will be later used against us. Whereas now, the chant may be “He kept us out of war”, maybe in a few years we will wish he had engaged Assad, Russia and Iran.
President Obama won’t only be judged in this time, on whether we should’ve or shouldn’t have bombed Syria, but he will be judged based on how things go from here. Does Assad survive the insurrection, does he remain in power, does he continue to plague the region, does he ever answer for his war crimes, does he solidify his power, and is he responsible for an even greater war crime five years from now? Maybe history will show that this was our greatest opportunity to remove Assad, but the President chose not to do it. Either way, the greatest judgment of President Obama’s policy toward Syria won’t be found in Gallup polling in the coming days, it’ll be seen five, ten years from now. Only then will we know whether Obama’s actions were appropriate, adequate, or abysmal. Only then will we know whether he kept us out of war, or whether he kept us out of a small conflict now, but thrust us into a much worse conflict five years from now.