WASHINGTON – To hear him tell it, no one is more tired of war than Barack Obama — yet the U.S. president is warning that combat fatigue must not get in the way of any new U.S. military adventure in the Middle East.
Ironies abound as Obama contemplates airstrikes on Syria, an operation that will show how a president’s early ideas about wielding power can be reshaped by the dilemmas of office.
Once, candidate Obama chastised President George W. Bush for a “cowboy” foreign policy and an “imperial” presidency, and for alienating allies and taking America into war with cooked intelligence.
But on the cusp of striking Syria, Obama wants Americans to again trust intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, despite the CIA’s credibility being poisoned by its botched “slam dunk” case for war in Iraq.
After once promising to go to war only with an international coalition and with backing from Congress, Obama stands almost alone, dumped by America’s closest ally, Britain, and is snubbing the U.N. and bucking public opinion.
Connoisseurs of incongruity may also note that Obama’s main military ally in the Syrian adventure figures to be France, the target of endless bile from Americans when it rejected Bush’s invitation to help invade Iraq.
Obama has spent two years trying to keep out of Syria, to spare his nation a new Middle East quagmire, but is now being accused of rushing to war after the administration declared that a U.N. inspection team’s mission there was irrelevant in establishing culpability for a recent chemical weapons attack.
It is also ironic that a politician who made a career on opposing the Iraq war finds his efforts to sell a new regional operation complicated by that disastrous conflict.
“Iraq has so fundamentally shattered the trust the American people have in the president when it comes to war and peace that it makes doing the right thing . . . much harder,” said a former senior Obama national security aide.
Obama said Friday he knows Americans are tired of conflict abroad. “Nobody ends up being more war-weary than me,” said Obama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy.”
But Secretary of State John Kerry added, “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”
The contradictions of the Syrian drama, and the fact that he wants his legacy to be that of a president who got America out of wars, not into new ones, appeared to consume Obama for days. Aides have repeatedly told journalists that the “president has not made a decision” — styling their boss’ agonizing as the act of a sober leader weighing his poor options.
Obama has seen his preference for a U.N.-endorsed mission to punish President Bashar Assad’s regime thwarted by a recalcitrant Russia — and the usual double act with buddy Britain was dashed Thursday night by the House of Commons.
But he knows going it alone carries a price.
“There are rules of international law,” Obama said on CNN a week ago. “If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it. “Do we have the coalition to make it work?” Obama said.
Obama said Friday the U.S. may also have to act alone if necessary to enshrine the principle that chemical weapons must not be used in a way that could endanger U.S. allies and national security — and to side with civilians in the path of a war crime.
“A lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it,” Obama reflected at the White House.
Benjamin Jensen, an American University political science scholar, said U.S. foreign policy since World War II has been dominated by the idea of building a multilateral international diplomatic and economic order.
“President Obama has multiple times indicated his commitment to that kind of liberal internationalist vision,” he said. “That’s where this becomes a real awkward moment if he decides to move forward (on Syria).”
Many observers in Washington believe a Syrian campaign will only be waged because of what they see as a mistake. Obama’s credibility is in question because he declared that the use of a “whole bunch” of chemical weapons by Assad in the civil war would cross a U.S. “red line.”
Kerry on Friday said U.S. foes are judging how Washington reacted to violations of international order: “They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it. . . . It is about Iran. . . . It is about Hezbollah and North Korea.”
So the biggest irony may be that Obama may enter a war in Syria so he does not have to fight one somewhere else.