Tomasky insists no:
The first and most important difference, plainly and simply: Obama didn’t lie us into this war. It’s worth emphasizing this point, I think, during this week when Obama is at the United Nations trying to redouble international support to fight ISIS, and as we think back on Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 snow job to Security Council. Obama didn’t tell us any nightmarish fairy tales about weapons of mass destruction that had already been destroyed or never existed. He didn’t trot his loyalists out there to tell fantastical stories about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.
The evidence for the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State is, in contrast, as non-fabricated as evidence can be and was handed right to us by ISIS itself: the beheading videos, and spokesmen’s own statements from recruitment videos about the group’s goal being the establishment of a reactionary fundamentalist state over Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. That’s all quite real.
The in-tray has been full of similar sentiments. My response is: sure, so far as it goes. But Tomasky’s argument doesn’t go very far. And the way in which Obama supporters have lamely acquiesced to this reckless war fomented by a dangerous executive power-grab is more than a little depressing. It strikes me as uncomfortably close to pure partisanship. I can’t imagine them downplaying the folly of this if a Republican president were in charge.
Sure, we are indeed not being grotesquely misled this time about non-existent WMDs. But we are going to war despite the fact that ISIS is no more a direct threat to the United States than Saddam was – arguably much less, in fact. We have no answer this time to the unanswered question last time: what if our intervention actually galvanizes Islamist extremism rather than calming it? And the Arab coalition that Tomasky cites as evidence that this war is a far less American-centric one than 2003 has some issues when you confront reality. Here’s the latest:
Jordan said that “a number of Royal Jordanian Air Force fighters destroyed” several targets but did not specify where; the Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the air force “launched its first strikes against ISIL targets” on Monday evening, using another acronym for the Islamic State. American officials said that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also took active part in the strikes, and that Qatar played a “supporting” role.
This may be important window-dressing, but window dressing it still is. It sure isn’t close to the coalition George H W Bush assembled in 1990 – and it’s much smaller than George W Bush’s coalition in 2003. More to the point, the key element of any successful strategy will be the position of the Sunni Arab tribes – and they are still sitting on the sidelines. Turkey is AWOL so far. And the fact that the Arab states do not want their contributions to be broadcast more widely reveals the depth of the problem. Obama has Americanized the problem. Once you do that, the regional actors get even more skittish, because the only common thing for so many of the populations represented by these autocrats is loathing of the United States. This is the Arab world. The US will never get anything but hatred and cynicism and contempt from it.
Then there’s the question of authorization.
George W Bush got a few Security Council resolutions (if not the final, vital one). Obama hasn’t even bothered – he’s bombing a sovereign nation without even feigning a request for formal authorization. GWB – against Cheney’s wishes – procured a clear declaration of war from the Congress. Obama seems to have decided that he is more in line with Cheney’s views of executive power than George W Bush’s – and has blown a hole so wide in any constitutional measures to restrain the war machine that he has now placed future presidential war-making far beyond any constraints. If that isn’t an outright abandonment of almost everything he has said he stands for, what would be?
Bush’s war had a vague and utopian goal: the establishment of a multi-sectarian democratic republic in Mesopotamia. He had close to no plans for the occupation; and no real understanding of how quixotic a project he was promoting. Obama’s goals are just as quixotic – “ultimately destroying” ISIS from the air alone – and he has no Plan B for failure. Bush tried to defeat a Sunni insurgency with a multi-sectarian government in Baghdad. It never happened – and we had to bribe the Anbar tribes instead, and, even then we needed 100,000 troops to keep the lid on the whole thing.
Obama says he is fighting a Sunni insurgency with a broadly based Baghdad government – but replacing Maliki has led to no such thing. There is still paralysis in Baghdad over the interior and defense ministries, no cross-sectarian national entity to take the fight to ISIS, and the real risk of a Shiite government actually reinforcing the Sunnis’ sense that the US and the Shiites are now intent on persecuting them even further. That makes the prospects for this attempt at pacification even worse than in 2006.
And look: I think Obama is sincere in doing what he can with the Baghdad mess; but we have to be crazy to buy this line of argument in counter-insurgency at this point in history. We are fighting a Sunni insurgency on behalf of a Shiite government and a near-independent Kurdistan, a fight which might well empower Iran and even Assad. This is about the worst formulation for this struggle as one could come up with. It does not bring Sunnis into the struggle; it may well keep them out.
Of course I wish I didn’t have to write this. And it is, of course, true that we are not torturing prisoners with the sadism and insanity of the Cheneyites. It is true we are not sending in 140,000 troops into another country. We are sending almost none – but to achieve the same result! To do the same thing we did last time and hope for a better outcome is the definition of insanity. But to do the same thing with even less of a chance to achieve it takes things to a new level of incoherence.
This is an illegal war, chosen by an unaccountable executive branch, based on pure panic about a non-existent threat to the United States, with no achievable end-point. Apart from all that, it’s so much better than Bush, isn’t it?
(Photo: Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi during the 69th United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 24, 2014. By Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images.)