Why Obama’s War Is Different Than W’s

In my initial post on the president’s speech to the UN, I predicted we’d hear more than a few voices arguing that Obama has simply dusted off George W. Bush’s rationale for going to war and replicated it. What I didn’t predict is that a well-regarded pundit, Mike Tomasky, would quickly offer a comprehensive refutation of that premise:

[I]t’s hard for me to imagine how the differences between the two actions could be starker. This is not to say that they might not end up in the same place—creating more problems than they solve. But in moral terms, this war is nothing like that war, and if this war doesn’t end up like Bush’s and somehow actually solves more problems than it creates, that will happen precisely because of the moral differences.

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….

Difference number two: This war doesn’t involve 140,000 ground troops. That’s not just a debating point. It’s a massive, real-world difference. I know some of you are saying, well, not yet, anyway. Time could prove you right. But if this works more or less as planned, it establishes a new model for fighting terrorism in the Middle East—the United States and Arab nations and fighting forces working together to do battle against terrorism. That’s kind of a huge deal.

Which leads us to difference number three: This coalition, while still in its infancy, could in the end be a far more meaningful coalition than Bush’s. The Bush coalition was an ad hoc assemblage bribed or browbeaten into backing the United States’ immediate geopolitical aims. It was brought together pretty much so Bush could deflect the essentially true unilateralist charge and stand up there and say “41 countries have joined together” blah blah blah.

I’d say argument number one is indisputable. And it’s not just a matter of the overt lies about WMD Bush and Cheney told; the more insidious lies suggesting linkages between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 that did not exist may have mattered even more in terms of U.S. public opinion. While there may be grounds for doubting the capacity of IS to strike the United States, and our own capacity to eliminate that threat at an acceptable cost, but it’s kind of hard to dispute the bad intent.

But the third argument favorably comparing Obama’s coalition with Bush’s strikes me as more than a bit premature, and if it’s wrong, then argument number two could become shaky as well. Like Tomasky, I cannot imagine Barack Obama presiding over the redeployment of tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops to Iraq, but unfortunately, that remains a rebuttable presumption now that the die has been cast.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.