For a president who distinguished himself from his predecessor by promising to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama suddenly appears determined to maroon his own presidency in Syria. But critics who worry that Obama is imitating George W. Bush are missing the central irony in his predicament – which stems from his failure to mimic Bush closely enough.
It isn’t that Obama should fabricate an existential threat from Bashar al-Assad, as the Bush administration did in its campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. Indeed, Obama’s difficulty in mustering public support for action against Assad is rooted in universal disillusionment with the fraudulent rhetoric of mushroom clouds, al-Qaeda links, and weapons of mass destruction that once emanated from the Bush White House and its allies. Neither should Obama ignore international criticism, as Bush did, nor dismiss the results of UN inspections.
But what enabled Bush to invade Iraq – and what Obama plainly lacks – was a comprehensive and determined effort to persuade the public that the dictatorship at issue had violated international law, threatened its neighbors and world security — and therefore invited a military response. Designed to penetrate deeply into the mainstream and conservative media and to influence Congress and US allies abroad, that effort created an almost inexorable pull toward war. Although the evidence presented by the White House was paper-thin and largely manufactured, it nevertheless sufficed with the full force of the presidency driving the argument.
Flash forward to the present, where Obama has approached Syria with the very different – and typically diffident – style that is all too familiar by now. Aside from occasional echoes of tinny rhetoric about Hitler and Munich, the concerted push of the post-9/11 Bush administration is wholly absent today. Yet unlike the hyped intelligence assembled then to indict the Iraqi dictator, the evidence incriminating the Assad regime is powerful and persuasive, going well beyond the vexed question of the chemical attack last month. While prosecuting the civil war, Syrian forces have repeatedly violated international law with indiscriminate and intentional targeting of civilians, use of cluster bombs and other banned munitions, unspeakable atrocities inflicted on women, children, and unarmed men, and interference with humanitarian assistance desperately needed by its victims.