Well, nobody ever said it was easy being commander-in-chief, especially when you’re running a war that nobody (starting with you) really wants. And you have to go on America’s most-watched television news magazine show and admit that the intel was all screwed up. And the people we’re supposedly “degrading” with all these airstrikes are suddenly within a few miles of the Turkish border in Syria, while in Iraq they are by some accounts within a few miles of Baghdad (although this is contradicted by other accounts).
This war has taken a quick turn for the worse, or perhaps two or three of them. And then, as background music to all the above, there’s the festering issue of its legality, both under international and domestic law, and the role of Congress in all this. Barack Obama is in for a rougher-than-usual couple of months. From the right, he is going to keep getting hammered for not having acted sooner. From the left, and perhaps from some corners of the right as well, for having acted too soon, or at least for having acted without congressional consent.
Both sets of critics have a point, and yet at the same time, both are making criticisms of expediency that elide the impossible complexity of this situation. If we are actually going to defeat this Islamic State, a little more patience and honesty are going to be required.
I was on Tamron Hall’s MSNBC show Monday, and she played a clip of Peter King, the Long Island Republican congressman who well articulates the hawkish critique from the right. You’ve heard it many times: that Obama dilly-dallied for two years ago and should have been arming the Syria rebels before, or all this never would have happened.
King could be right. With some reservations, I have basically agreed with the King/Hillary Clinton position. In August 2013, I wrote that bombing Syria (this was after news hit of the chemical attacks) was very risky but defensible and maybe inevitable. So I get King’s argument. Where I differ with him is that he isn’t, you know, God, and thus he can’t possibly know what would have happened if Obama had armed the rebels in 2012. So while it’s possible that King is right, there’s also a chance that we just could have ended up arming ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and the situation might have been worse.
But here’s the reality that King’s position ignores: American public opinion. At the time of the chemical weapons story last August, when Obama was considering a short bombing campaign in Syria, public opinion was strongly against it. A president can’t just go around ignoring that on a matter of war. As to the question of arming the rebels, there was probably no strong public sentiment one way or the others, so a King might argue that Obama could have shaped public opinion in a favorable direction there. That is possible. But it’s also possible that if Obama had made a big deal about explaining to the American public where Syria is and who Bashar al-Assad is and who these rebels are and what the plan was, that public might well have said no dice, buster, not our fight.
I guess Obama could then have invented a bunch of lies about how Assad was an imminent threat to the United States and was six months away from nuclear capability, but we had a president who did that, and that hasn’t worked out so well. Yes, Obama looked silly last summer when he tossed the matter to Congress—he knew Congress was going to say no, so it was his out. But Congress was going to say no for the same reason his instincts were telling him no: There was nothing close to majority support then for direct U.S. involvement in Syria. It took the beheading videos, and the deaths of two Americans, for that support to materialize. That’s just a fact.
Even given all this, Obama should have acted sooner on ISIS. But public opinion constrained him from acting much sooner. That’s horrible for the people of Raqqa and Mosul—horrible. But it is democratic governance.
With respect to the congressional part of this—of course Congress should vote. It’s not a tragedy if it happens after the election, but obviously, Congress should write a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force and should vote on it. And, again, the administration’s critics have a point: The administration’s claim that the 2001 AUMF covers this ISIS war is a stretch, to put it kindly. A new AUMF in the broader war has been overdue anyway.
Critics, especially those on the antiwar left, have blamed the administration for not wanting a vote, and they aren’t wrong. But here’s the thing: Most of Congress doesn’t want this vote either. The reason is simple. It’s a vote with political consequences that cannot be easily predicted. That is, the political ramifications of most votes these people take can be very easily foreseen. But this one is tricky. If there’s one thing most members of Congress are really, really, really good at, it’s knowing which way the wind is blowing in their district. But on ISIS and this new war, they clearly don’t know yet. That terrifies them. The last thing in the world they want to do is cast such a vote right before an election.
So they wanted to put it off, too. When John Boehner says, as he did Sunday, that he thinks Obama “does have the authority” to strike at ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, what he’s really saying sub-rosa is: My members don’t want any part of this right now.
So there we are. It would be nice if people could recognize that we are at, or at least approaching, a perilous point as a nation, and we are heading down a road in the Middle East that could prove disastrous. Yet not taking the road feels—at least to more Americans than not, and at least for the moment—like folly; like not playing the role in the world the United States is ideally (emphasis on ideally) supposed to play. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that came out Monday caught this well. In it, 72 percent thought it inevitable that we’re going to end up putting troops on the ground some day. And yet, by 45-37, respondents supported what Obama is doing so far.
It’s the kind of situation that will one day demand something approaching a national effort, not perhaps on the scale of World War II (let’s hope not) but at least in the sense of our political system and leaders being able to show the rest of the world some degree of resolve and unity. But 20 years of lacerating partisanship has probably made that impossible. The extremists, at home and abroad, will benefit. They somehow always do.