Skip to main content

Can the antiwar president lead a war of his own making?

Barack Obama vowed to end America's "perpetual war-time footing," only to realize that a world without the looming threat of unilateral U.S. military action is an even scarier place than one with it. As traditional allies, including Britain and Canada, refuse to join an intervention in Syria, only France (given its historical role as Syrian overlord) has stepped up to offer explicit military support.

The rest of the world can say no because it is counting on the U.S. President to say yes.

Clearly, Mr. Obama does not relish this responsibility. Last year, he set a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons precisely to keep the United States out of Syria's civil war then. Before that, he was dragged into bombing Libya by a trio of female advisers – Samantha Powers, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton – who made the humanitarian case for protecting civilians from Moammar Gadhafi's brutality.

Obama administration officials boasted that their meticulous efforts to win United Nations backing and mount a multilateral mission in Libya were proof of the President's "leading from behind." Since then, the Obama doctrine has seemed to consist of leading in circles. No one, including Mr. Obama, seems to know where he stands on the most critical foreign-policy issues of the day.

Ambiguity can be a useful tool to keep foreign rogues and rivals guessing. But the ambivalence Mr. Obama projects smacks more of equivocation than of tactics. His last-minute decision to seek congressional approval for a military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, while at the same time insisting he does not need it, seems more dilatory than conciliatory.

What happens if Congress says no? The assumption is that Mr. Obama would attack Syria anyway, since not to do so would make him look even weaker, both domestically and abroad, and set a precedent that could constrain this and any future president's ability to act. So, why complicate an already complicated decision when you cannot control the outcome?

Mr. Obama is "rolling the dice" in going to Congress, a senior House of Representatives Democrat told Politico. The White House intends to "flood the zone" by lavishing uncommon attention and information on wavering members of Congress before a final vote expected next week.

It promises to be a very long seven days in American politics. The Syria debate provides an opportunity for every Tea Party Republican and antiwar Democrat to score points (and media coverage back home) by promising war-weary voters that they will vote No. Swing-district members of Congress from both parties will also feel compelled to vote against intervention, since a Yes vote would likely haunt them in the 2014 mid-term elections.

If authorizing George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq was the default option for most members of Congress in 2002, denying the authority to intervene in Syria is the default option now. U.S. public opinion has turned decidedly isolationist in the bloody trail of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hence, Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have insisted that any intervention would not be "open-ended" and would seek only to degrade Mr. Assad's ability to use chemical weapons. Yet no sooner had Mr. Kerry promised there would be "no boots on the ground" than he let slip that there might be boots if Syria "imploded" and Mr. Assad's chemical-weapons cache fell into the wrong hands.

The administration is banking on building a coalition of Republican foreign-policy hawks (led by Republican Senator John McCain), "humanitarian" Democrats (led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) and pro-Israel members in both parties to win the Syria vote. The odds of a Yes are higher in the Senate than the House, where most Republicans seem poised to vote No, despite GOP Speaker John Boehner's support for a strike.

Intervening in Syria may be as much about about punishing Mr. Assad as sending a message to Iran. But unless the administration explicitly frames its argument in such terms – American voters do see a nuclear- and chemical-weapons-capable Iran as a security threat – members of Congress see little risk in repudiating Mr. Obama.

They, like the rest of the planet, assume the President will act with or without them. Such is the burden of the leader of the free world. A perpetual war footing comes with the job.