Public View Limits Obama’s Options
First off, a little history, please. Remember Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008? Sure. Remember why? Well, in part it was a reaction to the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were launched under the administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush. There was more to it than that, of course, but history will forever link Mr. Bush’s name to the conflict in Iraq. And many Americans no doubt hoped that the election of Mr. Obama presaged an era of U.S. wariness with regard to possible foreign military involvements.
Well, the specter of Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq and the reasons for it are looming large over Washington again (and London for that matter) as U.S. policymakers wrestle with a response to what Washington says was a chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian government on its own people.
One of the lasting political legacies of the Bush years is a sentiment among many Americans that they were duped during the run-up to the Iraq war by the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had to be taken out because his regime had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
When the war proved to be tougher than expected and those mass destruction weapons were never found, a new standard was set for presidents on how NOT to get the United States engaged in a far-flung military action. And so now Mr. Obama, who defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in 2008 in part by questioning her support for the war in Iraq, must try to find a way to rally a war-weary nation deeply skeptical of foreign military adventures.
War Weary Public
Recent public opinion polls indicate Americans are very reluctant to consider deep military engagement with Syria. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed believe the U.S. should not intervene militarily in Syria compared to 9 percent who said yes. Other recent surveys also suggest a strong hesitation among the public for any kind of serious military intervention, a byproduct of the lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At the same time there is no denying that Americans are horrified by the images they have seen of apparent chemical weapons use in Syria, and that may be boosting public support for a more arm’s-length military campaign that might involve cruise missiles strikes. A new NBC News poll found that while 50 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should not intervene militarily in Syria, 50 percent would be willing to support long-range missile strikes launched from Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Other surveys have shown a rise in support for airstrikes in the wake of revelations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown recently told me that his polling found that three in five Americans simply don’t see any national interest in intervening militarily in Syria. He went on to say that his data reflects a view that Americans are “marginally OK” with long distance drone or cruise missile strikes provided there is “no chance” of U.S. casualties.
Secretary of State John Kerry noted in a speech Friday that some, both at home and abroad, “cite the risk of doing things” in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But Kerry said a war-weary American public also needs to ask “what is the risk of doing nothing?”
There is no doubt Americans are sick of foreign military interventions that become open-ended and divert attention from budget and other problems at home. Drone strikes and long distance missile attacks are an easier sell with the public. But many Americans have grown skeptical since 9/11 that there are any easy military fixes to the challenges facing the country.
Afghanistan and Iraq both proved immeasurably more complicated and vexing than first thought and the public’s appetite for any military involvement abroad is very limited. U.S. policymakers must take care to frame the stakes, consequences and possible outcomes clearly from the outset, and a there is a lot of debate over that at the moment here in Washington.
Congress Tries to Weigh In
The NBC poll also found that nearly 80 percent of Americans want President Obama to get congressional approval before using force in Syria. That includes 70 percent of Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans.
The administration has been briefing key lawmakers on its approach to Syria, but well over 100 members of the 435-member House of Representatives have signed a letter calling on the president to seek formal congressional approval before taking action. Many lawmakers are trying to assert their role under the War Powers Act. The law was enacted in the wake of the Vietnam War and lays out the responsibilities for both the president and Congress in determining when and how the use of military force is justified.
The history of congressional approval in advance of hostilities is uneven. I recall covering the wrenching congressional debate before the 1991 Persian Gulf War when anti-war protestors screamed “No blood for oil!” from the Senate gallery. President George W. Bush had an even bigger challenge in 2003 when his administration tried to convince uneasy Americans that it was necessary to attack Iraq.
And who can forget Secretary of State Colin Powell presenting the administration’s case at the United Nations? Those efforts were undermined by later revelations that the much sought-after weapons of mass destruction never materialized.
But at other times congressional concerns have been largely swept aside. President Bill Clinton was the moving force on authorizing the air campaign against Serbia in 1999. President Obama followed a similar course when he committed U.S. support aircraft in Libya in 2011.
British Prime Minister David Cameron already found out the hard way that the legacy of the Bush administration’s attempts to justify the Iraq war remains strong. Cameron had to back down on his push for support in Parliament when even some members of his own party refused to go along with the idea of a military response in Syria.
Obama’s Difficult Road Ahead
The situation in Syria is the latest addition to Mr. Obama’s crisis list. Congress returns to work in early September and lawmakers will be focused on the need to renew funding for the federal government when the current spending authority runs out at the end of September. Not long after that, lawmakers will be faced with the need to raise the debt limit so the government can borrow enough to continue to pay its bills.
Some Republicans may want to risk a government shutdown by trying to defund the president’s health care law as part of any budget agreement. Most analysts see that effort failing for the moment. They predict a bigger battle over the debt ceiling, with Republicans demanding budget cuts in exchange for raising the borrowing authority. That in turn will be a key skirmish as lawmakers from both parties look ahead to the 2014 congressional elections and try to maximize gains.
What’s unclear is how U.S. military action in Syria will affect or complicate these other major challenges that lie ahead for the president. The next few months will be a critical time in Washington on several fronts, and what happens during this period could determine whether Mr. Obama’s second term will be seen as a success or a failure.