WASHINGTON -- Monday night marked the beginning of another U.S. war in the Middle East -- one with no specified time frame, no estimated price tag, lingering questions about its legality and concerns about the mission.
The political world couldn't be more supportive.
In the hours after a U.S.-led coalition launched a major bombing campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria, lawmakers and administration officials were lining up to praise President Barack Obama's actions and, on occasion, to encourage more. It was hard to find any hints of doubt or concern about the long-term strategy or potential for mission creep.
All four congressional party leaders -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- put out statements hailing Obama's leadership. Lawmakers in both parties chimed in with support. Senior administration officials held press briefings exuding confidence about the success of the first wave of U.S. attacks in Syria, which amounted to 160 munitions destroying key buildings and infrastructure occupied by terrorist groups.
The U.S. has "every reason to believe" the airstrikes in Syria were "quite effective," one top administration official said in a call with reporters. “We know we hit what we were aiming at.”
In a day packed with press availabilities, administration officials had answers at the ready: Were civilians harmed? (None confirmed.) Did the U.S. give advance notice to the Syrian government? (No notice on the timing of attacks.) How is this military action different from the past 13 years of war? (No U.S. ground forces.)
All in all, the temperament seemed dramatically at odds with the news. Day one of America's latest war in the Middle East was not a day of reflection, consternation, or debate. It was a day of near-universal calm. One close White House ally jokingly noted that it was probably the best news coverage the president has received in months.
“Are you missing Dennis Kucinich?” a top House Democratic aide similarly joked, referring to the anti-war former Democratic congressman from Ohio, when asked where the skepticism is on Obama’s strategy.
How could it end up this way? Retribution, it appears, is a powerful political motivator. The desire to respond with force to the Islamic State -- a group most Americans came to know as the people behind the gruesome beheadings of two U.S. journalists -- has overwhelmed the political discussion for several weeks now. So much so that if there was any criticism offered for Obama on Tuesday, it was that he took too long to throw punches.
Lawmakers likewise have calculated that it's best to look tough in the face of terrorism as elections approach. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been running ads accusing Democrats of being soft on the Islamic State. And in a show of just how little lawmakers want to stand in the way of a bombing campaign to beat back the group, Congress last week opted to adjourn for two months instead of voting on whether the president has the authority to act in Syria.
Not everyone read from the same script. War critics warned about the potential for blowback with the Syrian airstrikes. Several members of Congress, meanwhile, urged leadership to call the chambers back into session so they could vote on a new war authorization. One, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) warned that the legislative branch was doing immense harm to itself by not getting fully involved in the debate.
Congress has "sort of allowed the Cheney pre-emptive war doctrine to exist by another name," Kaine told The Huffington Post. "In this instance, they allowed the president to say, 'ISIL [the Islamic State] is the bad guys, and I can go after them even though there has been testimony that they pose no imminent threat of attack on the United States.' If the president just gets to do this without Congress, then we will be embracing the Cheney pre-emptive war doctrine, which I think is just brutally wrong."
Even as the bipartisan accolades roll in, it’s not entirely clear if Obama finds it all that comfortable. During a Tuesday afternoon event, a reporter asked the him if he feels at ease being seen as a war president.
“POTUS responded with a smile and a ‘Thank you,’” reads a White House pool report.
Sam Stein contributed reporting.