Let’s Please Stop Pretending That Obama is Reluctant to Take Military Action


E.J. Dionne chastises Democrats for not supporting President Obama on Syria:

The wretched experience of Iraq is leading many Democrats to see Obama’s intervention in Syria as little different from what came before. Never mind that the evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people is far clearer than the evidence was about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or that Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up to now.

Wait a second. I realize that Dionne is only talking about Syria here, but in the past five years Obama has (a) escalated twice in Afghanistan, (b) massively ramped up the drone war in Pakistan and expanded it to Yemen, (c) joined NATO’s air strikes against Libya, and (d) is now asking Congress to approve a punitive military mission against Syria.

No, none of this matches Iraq in the annals of military folly. And who knows? Maybe history will judge that these were all good decisions. Still, I think it’s about time to acknowledge that Obama is hardly “reluctant” to take military action. Neither I nor anyone else will ever know how hard he struggles with these decisions in the innermost recesses of his soul, but in the end he actually seems pretty damn agreeable about taking military action, doesn’t he?

Dionne also warns that voting against Obama will damage the rest of his presidency:

It was only a matter of time before our polarized politics threatened to destroy a president’s authority and call into question our country’s ability to act in the world….The question now is whether Congress really wants to incapacitate the president for three long years….The seriousness of this crisis should also push Republicans away from reflexive anti-Obamaism, Rush Limbaugh-style talk-show madness, extreme anti-government rhetoric and threats to shut Washington down.

I agree with Dionne about the shamelessness of big chunks of the Republican opposition. When Obama wanted to stay out of Syria, they spent hours on Fox sputtering about his lack of leadership and insisting that we had to do more to bring down the Assad regime. But now that Obama is proposing to do exactly what they asked for, suddenly they’re spending hours on Fox explaining why it would be foolish to enmesh ourselves in a brutal and intractable civil war five thousand miles away. It’s pretty stomach turning.

Still, putting our stomachs aside, why would rejecting Obama’s request “incapacitate the president for three long years”? I’m not asking this in the usual rhetorical way, where I pretend not to know even though I really do. I’m really asking. Presidents suffer defeats all the time. Obama lost on cap-and-trade. He’s lost on plenty of judicial and executive branch nominations. He couldn’t get agreement for a grand bargain. He lost on gun control. What’s more, Republicans have been opposing him on virtually everything from the day he took office. In what concrete way would a defeat on Syria change this dynamic in even the slightest way?

As for America’s ability to act in the world, I really doubt that this vote will be taken as much of a precedent. But if it were, the precedent it sets would be simple: the United States won’t undertake military action unless it’s so plainly justified that both parties are willing to support it. That would frankly be no bad thing. Unfortunately, once they get in office American presidents of both parties seem to find no end of wars to fight overseas. Reining them in a bit would be commendable.

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