The Other Iraq Precedents

Most Americans would agree that the debate over what to do about Syria is haunted by the specter of the Iraq War and both its intended and unintended consequences. And as Ryan Lizza points out today, even if a diplomatic “solution” is worked out in the U.N. or elsewhere, the trajectory of events could reflect what happened with respect to Iraq to a disturbing extent:

One danger of a successful United Nations resolution is that it puts the U.S. on the same path as in Iraq: a cat and mouse game with inspectors, repeated confrontations over compliance, and mission creep that draws the U.S. inexorably into a war. Indeed, a United Nations resolution similar to the French proposal, which sets up a strict schedule for Assad to give up his weapons and includes penalties for noncompliance, would immediately increase America’s military commitments in Syria. Currently, Obama’s red line for intervention has been the use of chemical weapons. The resolution being considered at the U.N. would change that standard to the possession of chemical weapons. Obama would face the same pressures that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush faced along the road to war against Saddam: a dictator defying the U.N, hawks in Congress pressing for regime change, a sympathetic opposition begging for more help.

Where this analogy breaks down, of course, is that strongly adverse public opinion, and a Republican Party whose prime mission is thwarting whatever Barack Obama wants to do, would serve as effective curbs on any administration-sponsored drift to all-out war, even if Obama lets himself be pulled in that direction, which is unlikely.

But the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof does offer a reminder that the two Gulf Wars are not the only Iraq precedents worth thinking about:

While the war that began in 2003 was a disaster, two limited interventions succeeded in Iraq. One was President Clinton’s 1998 bombing of Iraqi military sites for a few days (maybe the closest parallel to Obama’s plan for Syria); it may have convinced Saddam Hussein to abandon W.M.D. programs. The other is the no-fly zone over Iraq’s Kurdish areas in the 1990s to prevent a genocide there. They were limited uses of force that proceeded so smoothly that they are hardly remembered.

It’s a good time for American pols and opinion-leaders to remember everything about recent policies towards this region.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.