A Pragmatism Too Far?

It’s extremely hard to reconcile the events of the past month or so with the rationale of the Obama presidency. And that’s what makes this capitulation to hysteria so profoundly depressing. I can see the simple pragmatism behind it: the president under-estimated the strength and tenacity of these maniacs, and feared they could make further gains, plunging the region into a new turmoil. The media and the elites all jumped into full metal panic mode and created a powerful momentum for action. In fact, the elite consensus in favor of attacking ISIS was, until last night, at least, eerily reminiscent of the elite consensus in favor of going to war in Iraq in 2003 – without the year or so of debate. If US-ATTACKS-9/11-ANNIVERSARY-OBAMAyou’re Obama, you do not believe you can really solve this problem, but you need to do something, both to stave off possible disaster, to guard against potential ISIS expansion, and to try and rescue the Iraqi “state” one more time. So you rely on air-power, you corral the Saudis to help train and fund Sunni opposition to ISIS, you funnel some arms to the “moderate” Syrian rebels … and hope for the best.

What this misses in its flexibility is that it comes at the cost of profound incoherence. Presidencies need a grand narrative if they are to succeed. Obama’s was a simple one: to slowly rescue the US from the economic and foreign policy nadir that Bush-Cheney bequeathed us. We would slowly climb back out of the hole of fiscal recklessness and financial corruption into a saner, calmer period of slow but steady growth. We would slowly de-leverage from counter-productive over-reach in the war on Islamist terrorism. We would end two wars. We would begin nation-building at home – in the form of universal health insurance and badly needed infrastructure improvement. Above all, we would not be jerked back and forth by Islamist fanatics abroad, seeking to chart a course of steady strategic retrenchment.

Now, of course, this was never going to be a linear path. I feared back in 2009 that withdrawing from Iraq might look a lot like withdrawal from Vietnam. That it took place without a bloodbath or national humiliation was a triumph of optics and luck and bribery. But I was never under any illusion that the “surge” had succeeded in its own terms. We had no guarantee that Iraq would not return almost instantly to the sectarian distrust, hatred and violence that have been integral to its existence for decades. Kurdistan could work – but the rest remains ungovernable, except by tyranny and terror. And so yet another spasm of Shi’a-Sunni violence seemed inevitable to me. But at least, we would no longer be sitting in the middle.

I don’t buy for a second the lame idea that if the US had kept a residual force there – despite Baghdad’s express wishes – we would have avoided the current turmoil. We couldn’t control or end it with a hundred thousand of the best-trained troops in the world. What chance would 10,000 advisers have to counter the weight of history and the cycle of revenge? So there would come a point at which Iraq would implode again and the US might be tempted to intervene. I naïvely thought no sane American, after the Iraq War, would ever support that. I foolishly believed we would not be able to instantly erase – like an Etch-A-Sketch – all that we so painfully learned in that catastrophe.

What I under-estimated was the media’s ability to generate mass panic and hysteria and the Beltway elite’s instant recourse to the language of war. I believed that Obama was stronger than this, that he could actually resist this kind of emotional spasm and speak to us like grown-ups about what we can and cannot do about a long, religious war in the Middle East, that doesn’t threaten us directly. But he spoke to us like children last night, assuming the mantle of the protective daddy we had sought in Bush and Cheney, evoking the rhetoric he was elected to dispel.

What the president doesn’t seem to understand is that this dramatic U-turn isn’t just foolish on its own national security terms; it is devastating to him politically. He is now playing on Cheney’s turf, not his own. His core supporters, like yours truly, regarded our evolution from that Cheney mindset one of Obama’s key achievements – and he tossed it away last night almost casually. He committed himself and us to a victory we cannot achieve in two countries we cannot control with the aid of allies we cannot trust. And, worse, he has done so by evading the key Constitutional requirement that a declaration of war be made by the Congress. He is actually relying on the post-9/11 authorization of military force against al Qaeda in Afghanistan to wage war in Syria (in violation of international law) and in Iraq.

This is not just a betrayal of a core principle of his presidency – a restoration of normality – it is a rebuke to his own statements. This is what the president said last year:

We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

His speech last night was an argument for doing exactly what he said we should not do a year ago. He has made no attempt to explain why he has completely changed his mind – except to react emotionally to a vile off-shoot of another Sunni insurgency in Iraq. This does not only mean his administration no longer has a coherent narrative, it also means he is utterly hostage to forces abroad he cannot control. His refusal to go to Congress for a prolonged open-ended campaign in Syria is also utterly inconsistent with his decision a year ago to go to Congress before even considering punitive air-strikes in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

If he believed he needed to go to Congress for that limited engagement, how on earth can he argue with a straight face that he does not need to now? It makes no sense – and no one in the administration has been able to make a persuasive case for this walking contradiction.

That seems to me to leave us with a small chance to nip this in the bud. I believe that the administration needs to get direct authorization from the Congress to re-enter the Iraqi theater and enter the Syrian one by October 7 – 60 days since the first air-strike. Again, this is completely consistent with Obama’s previous positions. We have to break the war machine’s ability to do what it will without any constitutional checks upon it. We need to demand a full debate and a serious declaration of war. We are, after all, planning at least a three-year campaign in Syria, without the Syrian government’s approval, and in violation of international law. How can we do that without direct Congressional authority – especially when the administration has declared that ISIS is not a threat to the homeland?

Maybe there are enough Democratic and Republican skeptics in the Senate to force a vote. Even if they lose, such a vote would at least force these cowards to own a war they are acquiescing in, to share the full responsibility and face the voters, and to be subsequently accountable for its failures or modest success. And if an open-ended war against an entity that has not attacked the US or plans to do so is not something that the Congress should approve, then we really are an empire, and not a republic.  We are an empire with an executive branch that controls war and peace, that launches covert and overt wars, that keeps the US on permanent offense across the globe, creating as much terror as it prevents, and entangling us in one more sectarian vortex of fickle friends and mortal foes.

I refuse to cave into depressed acquiescence to this machine, even as it has now captured the one president who promised to restrain it. The only way to do this is to build a strong campaign – not least among Obama supporters – that no war be continued past October 7 without full Congressional debate and formal authorization.

Are we able to prevent the US from entering another nightmarish engagement in a part of the world that rewards no one?

Repeat after me: Yes. We. Can.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama stands at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, September 11, 2014, for a moment of silence marking the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.)