WASHINGTON — The debate over Syria is a jumble of metaphors, proof that every discussion of military action involves an argument about the last war. Yet beneath the surface, the fight in Congress over President Obama’s proposed strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime is a struggle to break free from earlier syndromes to set a new course.
Obama himself is using the imperative that he back up his “red line” against chemical weapons as an occasion for revisiting his Syrian strategy. And both of our political parties are emerging from a post-9/11 period of frozen foreign policy thinking to a more natural and intellectually honest exchange over America’s long-term role in the world.
The mood of the public and of many in Congress is summarized easily: “No more Iraqs.” It’s a sensible impulse because the Iraq War never delivered on the promises of those who urged the country to battle. Especially among Democrats who initially endorsed the war, there is a lingering guilt that they never asked the Bush administration the questions that needed to be posed. Belatedly, those queries — about what the intelligence shows and what our goals are — are now being directed to Obama on Syria.
Still, there is another reaction among Democrats and liberals, including Obama. It is a return to a pre-Iraq view that shaped the Clinton administration’s policies in Bosnia and Kosovo after it failed to stop the Rwandan genocide: There are times when American power can be used to keep local wars from flying out of control, to prevent or limit humanitarian catastrophes and, yes, to advance the country’s interests.
Many Democrats supported Bush on Iraq because they mistakenly placed the war in the context of a humanitarian intervention. Yet this guardedly interventionist wing of the party also includes people such as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who opposed the commitment in Iraq but never stopped believing in the positive uses of American military power. These Democrats are swinging Obama’s way on Syria not for partisan reasons but because he shares their position in the quarrel inside the party.
Nonetheless, Obama faces substantial resistance among Democrats because Vietnam and Iraq turned a large section of the party into principled non-interventionists who set an extremely high bar to any use of America’s armed forces. The same can be said of libertarian Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representative Justin Amash (R-MI). This left-right anti-war coalition has a long American pedigree, going back to the periods before both World War I and World War II.