Seven Little Words; Let's Go to War Again
Syria: We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
Barack Obama may be too thoughtful to be president. Certainly he has overthought what to do about President Bashar Assad, a monster killing his own people and making a mockery of the idea that there is an “international community” ready or willing to bring crazed tyrants to justice.
The presidency is essentially a reactive office. Campaign promises and deep thinking are not the essence of the power of a president, nor is the fact that we are the most powerful of nations. In the end, the man in the White House is not being paid to bring solid, thought-out logic and analysis to a multitude of unforeseen problems or crises. He is being paid for his judgment in those crises — for his reaction. Instinct tends to trump intellect.
No one remembers whether Lincoln, or even Harry Truman, balanced the budget. Lincoln was at least as thoughtful as Obama, but he also reacted to slavery and other issues dividing North and South by going to war. Truman, a cagey thinker, reacted to war and aggression instinctively by dropping the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945, ordering the Berlin Airlift against all advice in 1948, and both protecting and invading Korea when communist armies invaded from the north in 1950.
In 1950, I was a 13-year-old kid home from school when I turned on the television and saw a static visual: a crude map of the Korean peninsula with arrows going every which way. A voice said the president had ordered American troops into action. I thought it was the greatest thing since comic books. Finally, we were showing the dirty commies who was boss!
I’m not 13 anymore. I have been appalled and outraged by the stupidity and ignorance of American leaders going into one war after another in places with strange names, faraway countries where we never had a chance to prevail. Vietnam. Lebanon. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan. In the simplest terms and no matter how “noble” our aims, we could not win a poorly thought-out “small war” with people with a history on their own land. They have been there just about forever and will be there evermore. And us? One day, in defeat or deadlock, in months or decades, we will go home and pick up where we left off.
Those are fairly obvious mistakes — if you’re looking backward. Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush all thought they knew what they were doing. And they were all wrong.
Presumably, Obama, the thoughtful, thought he knew what he was doing. But by any measure up to now, he has made one mistake after another when it comes to Syria. The “seven little words” of the president have put him and the rest of us in test of our credibility. “A red line” — then we do nothing? “Shot across the bow” — is just another threat. Great nations and presidents do not set up themselves to be seen as bluffing, as big-mouthed phonies. We are not North Korea.
Obama the thoughtful has obviously thought all or most of this out. I’m just writing and thinking; he, sooner or later, has to do something. Doing nothing, which is what I would probably do, is for him an action in itself — one with weighty foreign policy and credibility implications. Unintended responses on all sides, unintended consequences all over the world.
Going to the Congress for approval of sorts may be another presidential blunder. It is clever politically of the White House to try to get the Senate and House to share responsibility and blame if things don’t turn out well. They are a slimy bunch, ready to call for action by the president, then vote against it. Many members from both parties or their predecessors were burned by tricks like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and false reports of weapons of mass destruction. These are people unwound by their priorities back home where many voters are opposed to yet another “small” war. Congress has not declared war since Dec. 8, 1941 — often forcing presidents into actions they would prefer not to take. If Congress turns Obama down, which they may, he will almost certainly have to go ahead alone to preserve a sliver of credibility.
After that, who knows? Where exactly is it written that it is America’s obligation to police the world, to make it a better place? We have great power, and some good intentions — but not that much of either.
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