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- September 3, 2013
The Syria debacle and the lessons of Iraq.
President Obama made a compelling moral case Saturday for military action against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria:
What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
Make no mistake–this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
Then, he asserted that although “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” he will seek authorization anyway.
Our initial reaction was that if we were a member of Congress, we would be inclined to vote “no.” We ultimately, and with some difficulty, changed our mind, as we shall detail below. Our resistance–and our continuing misgivings about the prospect of an attack on Syria–are informed by reflection on our errors during the 2002-03 debate that preceded the Iraq war, of which we were a strong supporter.
This is not going to be one of those columns in which we repudiate wholesale our position back then, as no small number of former Iraq war supporters have done. That posture has always struck us as pusillanimous (abandoning one popular position for another), pointless (for one cannot annul an already-fought war), and intellectually lazy.
No philosophical breakthroughs have occurred over the past decade to render the moral and legal justifications for the war untenable in retrospect. Thus the only test it can be said to have failed is an empirical one: that things turned out badly. To say so may seem obvious, but it begs the question: Badly compared with what?
Things are not so bad today that one can say with anything approaching certainty that they would be better if Congress had voted down the authorization to use force in 2002, or if President Bush had declined to avail himself of it the following year. It is not difficult to imagine a counterfactual scenario in which Saddam Hussein is still in power and things are worse than they are today. It is easier still to imagine one in which things are bad enough that those who supported war in 2002-03, having lost the political debate, feel as justified in saying “I told you so” as those who opposed it do today. All we know–all we can know–is what happened; might-have-beens are by definition speculative.
What we can say is that events disproved certain of our expectations–that our predictions were wrong. Three such erroneous expectations are pertinent here:
First, that because the U.S. military was so much mightier than the Iraqi one, victory would be comparatively easy. (“Cakewalk” was a buzzword of the day.) Although that was true of the initial invasion, opponents who warned of the possibility of a lengthy and difficult terrorist/guerrilla insurgency proved to be correct.
Second, that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam’s dictatorship would have a benevolent transformative effect on the broader Middle East. The region does appear to be undergoing a transformation–the so-called Arab Spring–but as to whether that is because of or in spite of the Iraq war, one can hardly fault the answer Paul Wolfowitz gave us in a 2011 interview: “It’s a fascinating question, and one should probably simply . . . say it’s in the category of the unknowable.” More important, it is clear by now that the transformation is very far from unambiguously benevolent.
Third, that the breadth of domestic political support for the war–which had the contemporaneous bipartisan backing of 69% of House members, 77% of senators and around 70% of the public–was indicative of a durable commitment to the war effort. Some Democratic supporters–John Kerry most notable among them–switched sides even before the shooting began; and support from the broader public slowly, and it turned out irretrievably, diminished over the ensuing few years.
All these erroneous assumptions fall into the category of wishful thinking.
Opponents of the war were also prone to wishful thinking, as well as to the magical kind. The appeal of Barack Obama in 2008 lay not only in his status as the only serious Democratic candidate to have opposed the war from the outset, but also in the belief that his conciliatory rhetoric, along with his “multicultural” identity (black, with Muslim ancestors and an Arabic middle name to boot!) would “restore our moral standing,” as the future president put it in his nomination speech, and usher in “a new beginning,” as he announced in Cairo in June 2009.
Obama’s supporters would now have us believe that his swaggering words are as powerful as his soothing ones were supposed to have been. The McClatchy Washington Bureau reported Saturday that “foreign policy experts questioned the wisdom of waiting at least another week for Congress to return before the U.S. could act.” In response:
Administration officials downplayed any risk at the military level, saying they believed Obama’s strong words alone would prevent Assad or his allies from striking before the U.S. make [sic] a decision. One official simply called any future attack by Assad a “big mistake.”
This is an example of magical thinking that is not wishful. It would indeed be a big tactical mistake for Assad either to attack U.S. forces or again to use chemical weapons while congressional action is pending. But that is because of Obama’s political weakness, not his rhetorical strength. Congressional assent to Obama’s request for military authorization is far from assured; if Assad wants to keep it that way, he will lie low as the debate plays out.
Now, let us turn to analyzing the Syria situation in light of our three faulty assumptions about Iraq.
Obama is not making any claim that military action against Syria will have a transformative effect. His argument, instead, rests on the potential dire consequences of inaction. We find it persuasive. Maintaining the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons (and nuclear and biological ones) is a moral imperative. These armaments have the capacity to kill on a far greater scale than conventional explosives and bullets.
But if action is necessary as a moral matter, it must also be sufficient as a practical matter. And that is where Obama’s plan falls terrifyingly short. Here is what he said on Saturday:
This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.
On Friday, before Obama made the decision to seek congressional authorization first, Secretary of State Kerry said that “whatever decision [the president] makes in Syria it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya.” That’s a bizarre and illogical assertion: It will be a “resemblance” to Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, if Obama acts with congressional authorization, and to Libya had he chosen to act without it. But Kerry elaborated in words similar to those the president used the next day:
It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway. The president has been clear: Any action that he might decide to take will be [a] limited and tailored response to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable.
In short, the administration is promising a cakewalk: an easy strike with little American blood or treasure at stake. As we argued Friday, it is fatuous to assume that would prove sufficient to hold Assad “accountable” or to deter him and other dictators from further bad acts.
To be sure, the authorization the administration is seeking is more open-ended than its rhetoric would suggest. As Politico reports:
[Capitol] Hill aides noted the White House-originated draft did not prevent the deployment of American ground forces in Syria in order to fulfill the mission of interdicting the Assad regime use of chemical weapons. That restriction is seen by some in Congress as a key to winning support for the military effort in both the House and Senate.
According to Politico, the resolution as written is drawing objections from members of the president’s own party, which holds the majority in the Senate. “I know it’s going to be amended in the Senate,” said President Pro Tem Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey “are overseeing the revisions, which seek to narrow the scope for any U.S. military mission in Syria, Democratic sources said,” Politico reports.
In addition to reflecting Obama’s own aversion to decisive military intervention, his promise of a “limited” response can be seen as a bow to political reality–and not only within his own party but among Republicans, who control the House. Whereas only one Republican senator and six representatives voted against the Iraq war in 2002, today isolationism is resurgent across party lines.
To differing degrees, each party learned the same “lesson” from Iraq.
Which makes the president’s request for congressional authorization difficult to understand as anything but a political ploy, at best an exercise in buck-passing, at worst–and this has been suggested approvingly by some of his admirers–a strategic effort to inflict political damage on congressional Republicans. In support of the latter hypothesis one may note that Obama maintained the element of surprise with his Capitol Hill adversaries while going to ridiculous lengths to spare Bashar Assad of it.
For now, we’ll go with buck-passing as the likely explanation. After all, no one seemed more shell-shocked by Obama’s announcement than Kerry, whose performance on “Fox News Sunday” (he was on all the Sunday shows, but we could endure only one) was painful to watch. For this columnist, empathy for John Kerry was a completely novel emotion.
NBC News reports that Obama made the decision to go to Congress Friday night because it “was the approach most consistent with his philosophy.” Ah, so it was one of those last-minute philosophical decisions. But what philosophy exactly?
There is an intellectually respectable argument that the Constitution prohibits the president from taking any military action, except in response to an imminent or actual attack on U.S. territory or armed forces, without congressional approval. But Obama himself disavowed that view on Saturday! According to him, he thinks he has the authority to act in Syria without Congress, and he thinks action is imperative. Yet he invited Congress to say “no”–or, at best, to tie his hands so that he cannot, without defying the law, take further action should his promised cakewalk fail to deliver the sweets.
How can “yes” possibly be the right answer to such derelict and disgraceful leadership? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Eliot Cohen makes the argument:
For better or for worse, the credibility not only of this president, but of America as a global power and a guarantor of international order, is on the line. . . .
Legislative statesmen accept that partisanship and self-seeking must stop at the water’s edge–and they soberly realize that responsibility lies with them, no less than with the inept and inconstant president who has brought the nation to this pass.
The argument is true–but not straightforwardly so if you think, as we do, that Obama’s bluster and indecision have already seriously damaged American credibility, and if you lack confidence, as we also do, that a “yes” vote followed by the sort of desultory attack that Obama promises to wage would restore that credibility or prevent its further diminishment. When you look at it that way, it’s tempting to think one might as well vote “no.”
But then we thought about it in terms of behavioral economics and saw our own cognitive error. Prospect theory teaches that when people are presented with only bad options–the situation in which Obama’s request for authorization puts members of Congress–they tend to become risk-seeking, or, to put it another way, they tend to be insensitive to differences between a bad choice and a worse choice. Framing theory teaches that the way you ask a question can influence the answer in predictable ways, even if the underlying substance of the question is the same.
Say you are forced to choose between option (1), which is exceedingly likely to produce a catastrophe but offers a 1 in 20 chance that the damage will be limited to a mere disaster, and option (2), which is certain to produce a catastrophe. This is such a simple problem that the answer is clear: (1) is the “better” option, even though it is horrible when compared with the status quo.
Now say you’re offered the same choice, but instead of having numbers, the bad option is called “yes” and the worse option is called “no.” Wouldn’t your intuition tell you to say “no”–especially if the person imposing the choice on you made clear, as Obama did Saturday, that he was doing so gratuitously, if not maliciously? Some lawmakers, that is, will vote “no” because it feels like a way of avoiding responsibility or “sending a message” that they object to being asked the question.
(That suggests a crazy thought: Speaker John Boehner announced today that he will support the authorization resolution. If it turns out the votes aren’t there, why not flip the question around by withdrawing the authorization from consideration and instead introducing a bill to forbid military action in Syria? Even if it passed the House, the Senate could vote it down, which the president could treat as a constructive authorization.)
Think of the position in which Obama has put even members of Congress who agree, as we do, with the moral premises behind his call for action. We’re willing to bet that few of them have the knowledge of contemporary cognitive science that we had to call on to puzzle our way to the less-wrong answer.
Obama, for his part, has no such excuse. He counts among his advisers Cass Sunstein, a leading legal thinker on behavioral economics; and last year the New York Times reported that the president claimed to have read psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which is where we learned all this stuff.
Moreover, there are other reasons why members might vote “no.” Some are sincere adherents to noninterventionist doctrines. Some may think our formulation of the problem is mistaken–that the risks of action outweigh the risks of inaction. And it is not unheard-of for politicians to weigh considerations of political expediency more heavily than even their sincerely held views of what is good for the country.
All the foregoing observations apply equally to Democrats and Republicans, with the only difference that partisan loyalty or antagonism militates in opposite directions. But here is one partisan observation at aimed at any Democrat reveling in schadenfreude at Obama’s having maneuvered GOP lawmakers into a difficult position by forcing this question on the House:
If you believe the media stereotype of Republicans, and especially House Republicans–that they are science-hating anti-intellectuals; knaves, zealots and racists happy to put political power, ideology and hatred of the president above any concern for the good of the country–then you should view his discretionary decision to give them veto power over a matter of grave national importance as a disgraceful abdication of responsibility, if not an impeachable offense.
Which brings us back to Iraq. In 2002 some Democrats (and perhaps a few Republicans) went against their inclinations and voted to authorize the war for reasons of political expediency. With the memory of 9/11 still fresh, the public was behind the president, and lawmakers feared being tagged as soft on terror.
That was a political miscalculation. As the Democratic nominee in 2004, Kerry could not explain his flip-flop, and the next Democrat to be elected president was a future senator who had shown political prescience in denouncing what he called a “dumb war” in a Chicago speech in 2002.
In that speech, it is worth noting, Barack Obama rejected precisely the moral argument he made so powerfully on Saturday:
Now let me be clear–I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. 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.
In 2007 Obama asserted that American troops should be withdrawn from Iraq even if that would result in genocide:
“Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now–where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife–which we haven’t done,” Mr. Obama told the AP. “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea.”
These past statements indict the president for hypocrisy, but they do not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. In his defense one might claim that his moral sensibility has matured over the past six years. Perhaps, that is, he has grown in office–though he has not grown nearly enough by other measures that one can say he is up to the job.
Unless in the next week or so he discovers a heretofore unrealized capacity to move public opinion on substantive matters of policy, the expedient thing for lawmakers of either party to do will be to vote “no” while smugly minimizing the moral stakes by noting that while Assad is of course “a bad guy,” he poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, the Syrian economy is in shambles, there are lots of other mass-murdering dictators and we can’t bomb ’em all, and so forth.
Any opportunistic lawmaker who takes that path will be following the example set by the man who is now president of the United States.