September 3rd, 2013

Obama the principled: but what are the principles?

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).

Here’s Mirengoff:

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.

24 Responses to “Obama the principled: but what are the principles?”

  1. Harold Says:

    I think you’ve laid out the messiahs “principles” perfectly. Like all good marxists he wants power, power, power. Nothing else matters.

    That’s why I think the GOP congress should just agree that Obama has the authority to conduct a strike, then take no vote whatsoever on the issue. Force Pelosi, Reid, Obama to handle it all.

    Note: he conducted a similar size strike in Libya without any congressional approval.

  2. physicsguy Says:

    Now that Boehner is on board with Obama (big surprise there), I really wonder what is actually going on in Congress. Even the latest ABC poll shows that both liberals and conservatives actually seem to agree that action in Syria is not a good idea:

  3. Ann Says:

    My goodness, Mirengoff seems naive here:

    The second [theory about why Obama has gone to Congress] — shifting blame to Congress — is implausible because Obama surely is shrewd enough to know that he, not Congress and not the Republicans, will be blamed if our intervention goes badly. The public did not let President Bush off the hook in Iraq even though Congress had bought in.

    Where has he been since 2008 that he hasn’t noticed that Obama never gets the blame for anything because of the cover given him by the MSM?

  4. John Says:

    Timing is everything. If this was really about principle, Obama would have been conferring with congress constantly in the run up to the attack, not doing a 180 at the last minute and leaving Kerry looking stupid. For once, I actually had a pang of sympathy for him.

  5. blert Says:

    He’s as flexible as the Communists or the Nazis.

    He’d have to hire Winston Smith – – except the MSM has such clones and drones on staff.

    0bamavision: from Tera-centric to Helio-centric to … 0bama-centric universes.

    The grand arc of narcissus: from surface optics to teleprompter.

    No wonder he’s frozen.

  6. blert Says:


    Then leave some money on the counter for the morning departure.

  7. Don Says:

    Following up on Ann’s post: Obama was short on options when he decided to punt to Congress. Even accepting that Obama might not be able to pass all the blame on to Congress, there was no reason for him to not try.

  8. Don Says:

    John Says:

    Timing is everything. If this was really about principle, Obama would have been conferring with congress constantly in the run up to the attack, not doing a 180 at the last minute and leaving Kerry looking stupid.

    He didn’t ask Congress for their support in Libya. He conferred with the Arab League and UN for that one, IIRC. His principals are only about political advantage.

  9. rickl Says:

    “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…
    well, I have others.”
    ~Groucho Marx

  10. NeoConScum Says:

    Ohhhhhhhh, N-Neocon…Sooooooooo jaded, soooooooooooooo cynical…And, yet, so young and smart.

  11. Eric Says:

    Neo: “now the party in charge is a different party, and so different rules apply.”

    Congress is not going to stop the punitive action against Syria.

    It’s theater. But that doesn’t mean Congress must put on Obama’s play and act out his script. I hope this opportunity is used, among other things, to call out and hold Obama to account for his and the Democrats’ hypocrisy.

  12. kaba Says:

    No argument on Obama and his lack of principles. I would just suggest that Graham, McCain, Boehner, and Cantor don’t impress me as moral lighthouses either.

  13. Artfldgr Says:

    looks like the war i predicted that had to start before he passes and the opportunity, is heating up. kerry is now thinking of ground troops in Syria… hey! guys! i guess these wonks forgot that with so man soviet, i mean ex soviet and Chinese advisers there, and equipment, such moves have always been verboten given the risks of escalation

    MANY times in history the US has sat on the sides due to the direct chance of ours and their forces meeting directly. there are exceptions, like the pilots shot down over Korea and Vietnam who were from Russia…

    one should note that if Obama did nothing much with the military and other things, the advantage would not be huge. but with all the stuff that has passed, and changed, and so on, the advantage is very large.

    i thought maybe Korea would be stupid, but the middle east is a bigger prize on top of the issue with conflict that another place would have.

    where would we borrow to defend ourselves?
    if something breaks out, its Obama, Kerry, Clinton, and if Obama its out its the same list (and more) headed by Biden.

    looks like the black politicians are ready to go to war out of Obama loyalty…

    and these guys may be dumb enough to think that a war might solve the economic issues… (a common idea).

  14. sdferr Says:

    John Kerry, on behalf of Barack Obama, makes the claim that the United States’ commission of an act of war upon Syria in the proposed “action” (when he cannot point to an act of war by Syria against the United States) will not be committing the United States to a state of war against Syria.

    And no one even bothers to laugh in his face.

    Our government has lost its mind.

  15. Artfldgr Says:

    This latest volte-face by the president is evidence of a man who is completely over matched by events, weak and confused, and deeply ambivalent about using force. Yet he’s also desperate to get out of the corner he painted himself into by declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute a “red line.” As a result he’s gone all Hamlet on us. Not surprisingly, Obama’s actions are being mocked by America’s enemies and sowing doubt among our allies. – Peter Wehner

    take away quote:
    Rarely has an American president joined so much cynicism with so much ineptitude. – Peter Wehner

    The West is learning why the Turks were so glad to be rid of their Arab subjects after the Ottoman Empire collapsed a century ago. Then there is the corruption and intense hatreds found among the Arabs. It’s a very volatile and unpredictable part of the world, and always has been. For centuries, the West was shielded from this reality because the Ottoman Turks ruled most of the Arabs. Western diplomats often heard the Turks complain about their Arab subjects. A favorite quip among the Turks was, “One should not involve oneself with the affairs of the Arabs.” Then, when World War I, and the Ottoman Empire, ended in 1918 Western nations found themselves temporarily in charge of these former Turkish Arab provinces. Before World War II broke out in 1939, most of these Arab provinces were cut loose as independent states. These new countries were not stable.

  16. Charles Says:

    Yes, I agree. Obama DOES have principles – always be sure to have someone who can be thrown under the bus when needed.

    Congress will do nicely – Republicans won’t complain due to the fear of being labelled racist and Dems will not turn on their Great One.

  17. southpaw Says:

    Mirengoff must be have been roaring drunk on Labor Day, fallen off his porch, and banged his head on the floor. Either that, or it’s a spoof and he’s having himself a good laugh somewhere at his readers’ expense.
    Mirengoff occasionally baffles me with his logic too. Usually he’s consistent, but every once in a while, he throws in a clunker of a post that doesn’t seem to be well thought out, or else he’s over thought it and ii doesn’t seem to make sense given the rest of his positions.
    Anyway I think Neo’s list and the order are spot on for Obama’s guiding principles, with the number 1. spot being consumed by Obama. Followed closely by number 2, and 3, if not directly, indirectly about him also. His last consideration is always somebody else, the law, and least of all congress.
    His deep concern for congressional approval certainly hasn’t been apparent in his edicts to ICE, the EPA, the NSA, the IRS, or anywhere else in abusing presidential power.

  18. Eric Says:


    As Don pointed out, Obama didn’t go to Congress for Libya.

    And with this Syria intervention proposal, Obama didn’t go to Congress first. I hope that fact is raised. His PR is painting it as Obama’s 1st choice, a principled appeal to Congress, rather than he was pushed into doing it after his Plan A cratered.

    It’s like when he bungled the SOFA negotiation with Iraq, perhaps passive aggressively on purpose, and he presented it as a principled decision.

    Obama is going to Congress because he wants a collective body outside the Office of the President to give the Syria action a legitimizing imprimatur – cover.

    Again, resting on sovereign authority through the US Congress was not Obama’s 1st choice. His 1st impulse was to look to a collective body with an international character. Obama’s order of authority to commit US forces that prefers international authority over American authority is an issue that ought to be raised by Congress.

    We should seek other nations’ assistance as a practical matter.

    As a matter of sovereignty, though, I would rather a US President go it alone based only on the authority of the Office of the President, and rest on US sovereign authority, than for the President to prefer an outside body when seeking a collective legitimacy, apart from practical assistance.

  19. Eric Says:

    Obama’s assessment of the Iraq problem in 2002 was breathtakingly optimistic for an issue where that kind of optimism on Iraq by the US President would have been unreasonable and irresponsible. And it ran counter to the assessment of Iraq by both Clinton and Bush.

    Clinton, Dec 1998:

    The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world. The best way to end that threat once and for all is with the new Iraqi government, a government ready to live in peace with its neighbors, a government that respects the rights of its people.
    . . .
    Heavy as they are, the costs of action must be weighed against the price of inaction. If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam will strike again at his neighbors; he will make war on his own people. And mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.

    So what reduced Iraq’s threat between Clinton’s dire assessment in 1998 and Obama’s optimistic assessment in 2002? Nothing we did, or at least nothing we did that was verified.

    Clinton, Jul 2003:

    Let me tell you what I know. When I left office, there was a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for. That is, at the end of the first Gulf War, we knew what he had. We knew what was destroyed in all the inspection processes and that was a lot. And then we bombed with the British for four days in 1998. We might have gotten it all; we might have gotten half of it; we might have gotten none of it. But we didn’t know.

    In fact, the reporting on Iraq after Op Desert Fox, which was the last substantial action the US took against Iraq before Bush’s 2002-2003 action, was Iraqi capability was recovering or had recovered – and rapidly so – after Op Desert FOx.

    NY Times, Aug 1999:

    They concede, however, that the Iraqis have proved more resilient than expected. They have quickly repaired damage done to air-defense weapons, forcing the Americans to bomb some targets over and over. They have even rebuilt some of the factories, barracks and other sites destroyed in December’s raids, including buildings at the Al Taji missile complex, one of the critical targets, according to Defense officials.

    Of greater concern is Iraq’s ability to rebuild its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, programs that Saddam pledged to halt as part of the cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf war in 1991. In their letter, the lawmakers said there was “considerable evidence” that Iraq continued to pursue those weapons, though neither they nor their aides elaborated.

    The administration and Pentagon officials maintain there is no evidence of that, but without international inspections, some acknowledged, there is little to stop Saddam’s government from doing so.

    “I’ve very concerned,” Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who served as the chief American representative at the United Nations during last year’s confrontation, told reporters on Wednesday. “My experience with the Iraqis is if you give them an inch, they take a mile.”

    So, what the heck was Obama basing his assessment of Iraq on in 2002? Certainly not on the same intelligence analysis that Clinton officials like, well, Clinton and Bill Richardson were basing their assessment of Iraq on.

  20. Eric Says:

    Add: I guess it’s possible that the Illinois State Senate had intelligence resources on Iraq that were unavailable to the Office of the President.

  21. parker Says:

    “So, what the heck was Obama basing his assessment of Iraq on in 2002? Certainly not on the same intelligence analysis that Clinton officials like, well, Clinton and Bill Richardson were basing their assessment of Iraq on.”

    It was based upon calculations that had nothing to do with anything other that BHO’s own future campaign. He was and remains in 24/7 campaign mode simply because teleprompter campaign speeches making tingles up legs is the end all and be all of the messiah. There is an empty loset of “presnt”. Truth is whatever he says is truth, and all who disagree are racists. Those who oppose are monsters feeding homeless children to grannies living inside a cardboard box under an overpas. And the overpasses are in a dangerous state of disrepair caused by Bush/

  22. M J R Says:

    The Republicans ought to all vote PRESENT and let the [normally anti-war] Democrats OWN this one.

  23. Surellin Says:

    One must distinguish between principles and unexamined assumptions, I think.

  24. Eric Says:

    Surellin: “unexamined assumptions”

    Obama’s assumption on Saddam was that the problem would just go away on its own and resolve itself – easy peasy, la la la – if we just maintain the easy and sustainable pre-9/11 status quo and don’t think about it further.

    One, that Saddam would just fade away, moreover with his 2 energetically psychopathic sons in waiting (nk Kims, anyone?), was a jaw-dropping assumption for someone with realistic aspiration to the top executive authority of the United States. There’s being hopeful, but that was borderline sociopathic thinking that if reality doesn’t fit my narrative, then it (reality, not the narrative) simply doesn’t count.

    Two, it utterly ignored the costs, harms, and risks of our pre-9/11 status quo with Iraq. He actually framed it as a solution, when the essential problem of the pre-9/11 status quo was that it was harmful, unstable, and indefinite with no solution even in its concept, let alone effect.

    Obama actually assigned the pre-9/11 status quo with Iraq the *opposite* value of what it actually was.

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