Obama And Syria: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan

Hatred of Obama is masking the depth and significance of his decision to seek Congressional approval of military action against Syria. The puffery and screeching about toughness, coalitions, military tactics, credibility and vacillation are just important enough to warrant comment. But they're not the real story.

Obama's presidency was founded on opposition to the war in Iraq. He spoke about the bloody and useless consequences of rushing into military action. But he also spoke about changing the way America chooses when to exercise its considerable muscle. Since WWII we have been sent to war by presidents who lied and manipulated the Constitution, the Congress and American public opinion into support for military action that cost hundreds of thousands of American casualties, billions in treasure, and caused enormous political damage domestically and overseas. Korea, Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, Grenada, Panama, Libya, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan; it's a long list of American military intervention. Some worked. The intervention in the former Yugoslavia brought an end to the worst of the era of ethnic cleansing. Most have been bloody failures.

In Syria, Obama is facing an immediate crisis that threatens his longer term goal of reduced American military involvement. The case for action is strong, if not overwhelming. Assad's use of chemical weapons has caused horrible loss of innocent life. But that is, sadly, a daily occurrence somewhere in the world, and we can't always respond with force. Our moral outrage is bounded by the practical consequences of constant intervention in immoral events. We need more than outrage to justify a strike. But in Syria, larger national interests are present, most notably the risk that Iran, or North Korea, or other actors with records of murder and violence will feel empowered by American inaction. Added to our moral qualms, a military response makes sense.

The opponents of military action can make the easier case that there needs to be an "actual or imminent threat" to the United States before military action can be ordered by the president. There's much wisdom in this and it's been embraced by Obama repeatedly. But the real world has a tendency to expose flaws in the best theories and Syria has done just that.

However we come out on this debate, it's the larger significance of Obama's decision to delay action in Syria until Congress acts that matters. Obama is reaffirming, deeply, his desire to limit overseas military action in the future. Obama's deferral to the Congress builds a wall against cowboy military adventures in the future. If Obama, of all people, had used military force where no imminent threat to the United States appeared, all restraints on future Presidents would vanish.

The American public is just beginning to perceive the nuance and strength of his decision. The reflexive right-wing attack on Obama as vacillating and incompetent is bouncing up against the highly visual process of making the President of the United States explain why American military action is necessary, probing the evidence to ensure the Congress isn't lied to again, and making explicit the limits on military involvement. Obama has trusted the American people and our institutions in ways that will limit the ability of future presidents to drag us into the wrong kind of military action. It will turn out to be not just the right thing to do, but popular as well.

American military action can be a force for good, and can't disappear as an option. But it can be brought into conformance with our values and our democracy. That's what Obama is doing and, more power to him.