Having misstepped by threatening imminent military action against the Assad government in Syria without making a compelling public case or building the requisite domestic or international support, the president took the difficult but welcome step back over the weekend that I had hoped for without, well, a lot of hope that it would actually happen. He and John Kerry are now harvesting the inevitable mockery of Republicans whose only point of unity in foreign policy is contempt for the 44th president, and of Democrats who have long feared that both these men represent a “liberal hawk” tradition in their party that must be decisively repudiated as shameful opportunism or worse.
I don’t share PA weekend blogger Sam Knight’s conviction that the Obama administration is replaying the Bush administration’s campaign for the Iraq War, or Sam’s certainty the case for a limited military strike on Assad’s forces is as flawed as the case for an invasion of and occupation of Iraq. But it should be clear the administration’s welcome if tardy decision to pursue congressional authorization and broader international sanctions for an attack on Syria should be accompanied by a willingness to stand down if neither is forthcoming.
We’ll hear a lot in the days just ahead about Obama’s credibility–or even his presidency–being on the line, with political and diplomatic catastrophe ensuing if he fails to secure sufficient backing for military action. That is the kind of imperial thinking–once the Emperor has “planted the flag,” no “retreat” short of total victory is acceptable–that prolonged both the Vietnam and Iraq wars long beyond any concept of proportion or usefulness. If Obama makes his case and succeeds in securing a congressional authorization for the use of force and sufficient international backing to make this an act of collective security, the wisdom or folly of his policy will be judged by results on the ground. But if his efforts at persuasion here and abroad fail, and he accepts an adverse outcome, he should earn praise, not contempt, for making military action contingent on compliance with domestic law and the kind of international support needed to maintain international norms against scofflaws like Assad.