Paul Mirengoff of Powerline has a controversial post about Obama’s motivations for asking Congress’s approval for going into Syria. Why controversial? Because he attributes principled motives to Obama (and not just the “principle” of playing politics, either).
So why did Obama go to Congress? I think he did so because he considers it the right thing to do. That is, Obama believes — as many do — that before the U.S. takes highly controversial military action in a war where serious nations stand on the opposing side, the peoples’ representatives should be consulted.
The idea that Obama acted as he did out of conviction shouldn’t be shocking. Most, though not all, of Obama’s important presidential decisions have been conviction-based. This is what conservatives mean when we talk about his ideological leftism.
To be sure, Obama’s most deeply held convictions don’t pertain to process. So it’s true that if Obama believed attacking Syria is imperative, he would not have bothered with Congress.
Instead, I submit, Obama believes that attacking Syria is the best response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. And he believes that having Congress vote beforehand is the best procedure — the same belief he held before he was president.
I disagree with Mirengoff, as do most of the commenters at his piece. However, when I thought about it at a bit more, I realized that in a sense I agree that Obama’s decision is principled. It’s just that I disagree on certain of the details of what principles of Obama’s might be involved.
With Obama, the first principle is always to defend his own political butt, and to simultaneously blame the opposition and absolve himself of responsibility. Going to Congress is in accord with those principles.
Obama’s second principle here is to delay action until events force his hand one way or the other, and then to deliver too little too late.
Obama’s third principle is the more conventionally “principled” one. It takes a bit more explaining, but it is in this third principle that Obama expresses the basis of much of his foreign policy, which is mostly internationalist rather than being concerned with specific US interests.
Number three principle is the reduction of WMDs on the international scale, which has long been an interest of Obama’s. One of the few papers of his that have actually come down to us is a piece he penned while at Columbia which concerned the US, the USSR, and nuclear disarmament (I have previously written about his essay here). Chemical weapons are not nuclear ones, but they are in the same general category of weapons of mass destruction, and it doesn’t strain credulity to imagine that Obama has some true antipathy to Assad having used them on his people.
Of course, that leaves us with the need to explain why Obama was against Bush’s invasion of Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was thought to be developing nuclear weapons and had already used chemical weapons on his own citizens in 1988, on a greater scale than Assad has. At the time of the 2002 buildup to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Obama was a mere state senator in Illinois—but he is on record as having spoken against it. The overarching reason appears to have been politics, politics, politics (the first principle tends to trump the third for Obama): it was Bush doing it, and Obama represented a very liberal district where supporting Bush would have been a huge no-no.
It’s instructive, however, to go back and look at Obama’s stated reasons in his speech, because he obviously couldn’t give “politics” as a motivation. One thing he cited was that the Iraq war would be a distraction from the real and more pressing concerns, which were domestic issues. That is actually consistent with what we know of Obama’s “principles” as president; he much prefers the latter to the former. Another reason he gave is that an invasion and occupation would be costly and risky. That is also consistent with Obama’s present position on Syria—as well as his positions on Egypt, Iraq, and Libya.
And then there’s this interesting tidbit from his 2002 speech:
[Saddam Hussein] is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
But 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.
Interesting, no? Especially that phrase, “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.” These arguments of Obama’s—which if true of Saddam Hussein (and at the time it was not at all clear they were true) are even more true of Assad—have fallen by the wayside this time, and are being advanced by Obama’s opponents rather than by Obama or his supporters.
In addition, if Assad were to fall or be weakened, who would rise to the ascendance in Syria? There is a general consensus that it would be Al Qaeda-affiliated “rebels.” And so one might argue that keeping hands off Assad, terrible though he is, is actually better for US (and even world) interests than the looming alternative.
It is fairly apparent from his 2002 speech that Obama believed that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and was intent on developing nuclear weapons, and yet Obama did not believe that was enough to constitute an “imminent and direct” threat of any sort to the US or to justify action. This was the party line of the day, and now the party in charge is a different party, and so different rules apply.