Obama Can't Win

Even if Congress approves the Syria adventure, the president still loses.

My late grandfather, a dedicated communist until Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956, was fond of quoting Marxist aphorisms (an enthusiasm that long outlasted his admiration for the Communist Party). Among his favorites was the much-cited opening passage of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, published in 1852:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

It's a great line, with the double virtue of being eminently quotable and giving Hegel -- that's Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, not to be confused with Chuck -- a nice little backhand smack on the nose. But it's also much too pat. Sure, history repeats itself, and sure, sometimes things get farcical. Mostly, though, the second go-round brings only more tragedy.

So it is with President Barack Obama and Syria.

Because you've heard this one before, right? An American president tells the world that brief, decisive military action is necessary to keep a murderous Middle Eastern despot from using weapons of mass destruction. The world is skeptical (as is the U.S. public). Declassified U.S. intelligence reports are bandied about. Foreign leaders remain unconvinced, urging patience and diplomacy as U.N. inspectors prepare a report of their own. The American president insists he'll use force unilaterally if necessary, and dares Congress to disagree. Congress caves.

The first time -- that would be Iraq, for those of you who are new around here -- things ended badly. You'll recall that the intelligence turned out to have been cooked (if not cooked through, it was at least half-baked). The U.N. secretary-general declared the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq illegal. And despite early Bush administration promises that the use of U.S. military force would be limited in scope and duration, the United States soon found itself embroiled in a multi-sided conflict that lasted eight years, cost more than a trillion dollars and killed nearly 4,500 American servicemembers (not to mention untold thousands of Iraqis).

You may also recall a young senator named Barack Obama, whose principled opposition to the Iraq War brought him national fame. In October 2002, Obama had this to say about the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq:

I don't oppose all wars ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war ... I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity ... But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors ... I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda.

It was a good speech. The kind of speech -- full of passion and honesty and good sense -- that eventually propelled Obama into the White House.

Ten years later, of course, it's President Obama who finds himself trying to sell a U.S. military intervention to a reluctant world. The ironies are staggering, and sad.

I won't belabor the parallels, for there are very real differences between Iraq and Syria, and between Bush and Obama. Saddam Hussein's most egregious acts of butchery were largely over by 2003, while the butchery in Syria is ongoing. Bush embraced the war in Iraq with enthusiasm, while Obama came only reluctantly to his current embrace of military action in Syria. And while regime change was a stated objective of the Iraq War, Obama has explicitly foresworn regime change as an objective in Syria.

But I'm not sure these differences make the current situation less tragic. In many ways, they make it more so.

It's painful to see Obama, who was once so famously moved by Samantha Power's book on the Rwandan genocide, insist that a hundred thousand dead Syrians is very sad, but not America's problem. Most of the dead civilians unwisely got themselves killed in the traditional manner, with bullets and bombs; it's only the 1,400 Syrians killed by chemical weapons who merit U.S. action (as opposed to U.S. sympathy). Why? Because for some reason the international laws prohibiting chemical weapons require reaffirmation through the use of U.S. military force, whereas the international laws prohibiting other war crimes require no such reaffirmation.

It's painful to see the president insist that the United States doesn't want regime change, in one of the few situations in which urging regime change would surely be justified. Assad is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own citizens in a brutal, ongoing conflict, and we don't hope he'll be ousted?

Most of all, it's painful to see this president -- the man who once spoke so eloquently against "rash wars" driven by "cynicism" and "politics" -- going to war to solely because he's boxed himself into a rhetorical corner. Sure, "credibility" is important -- but is living up to one thoughtless remark about red lines more important than avoiding pointless, poorly thought-through military action?

Oddly, many in the media seem convinced that Obama's pledge to seek congressional authorization for a Syria intervention was a clever gamble. It wasn't. It was, to paraphrase Obama, a dumb gamble. That's because there is now no good outcome for Obama, only a range of painfully ironic outcomes.

Consider the possibilities:

One: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, so Obama decides not to move ahead with military action. But wait: Obama already informed the nation that as commander-in-chief, he has "decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets ... based on what I am convinced is our national security interests." If that's true -- and if Obama also believes he has the authority to act without congressional authorization -- how can he possibly refrain from military action merely because he can't get enough votes in a famously dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress?

Two: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, and Obama -- the one-time constitutional law professor -- goes ahead with airstrikes anyway, ignoring the clearly expressed will of Congress.

Three: Congress votes in favor of authorizing military action in Syria, leaving Obama permanently beholden to congressional Republicans. This means the White House can kiss its domestic legislative agenda goodbye.

These are all rotten outcomes for Obama. And, lest I forget, U.S. military action in Syria is also a tragic outcome. The president proposed limited "punitive" air strikes aimed merely at destroying the Assad regime's chemical weapons capabilities, but these are probably pointless: They won't change the balance of power in Syria. If we want to change the balance of power -- which Obama says doesn't interest him -- we'll need more extensive strikes aimed at degrading the Assad regime's military capabilities more broadly. But this, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey warned last week, could easily "escalate and ... commit us decisively to the conflict." (See: Iraq, 2003.) 

All right -- but Syria isn't Iraq, and perhaps we should commit ourselves decisively to the conflict. But if we do so, let's do so for the right reason (stopping the violence altogether, not just making an empty "statement" about chemical weapons). And let's do so with our eyes wide open to the many risks: Humanitarian intervention can have as many unintended and terrible consequences as any other kind of military intervention.

I'll fess up to being thoroughly ambivalent about this. My gut feeling is that the United States might have successfully intervened to end the slaughter 18 months ago, but by now it's probably too late. The conflict has metastasized: It's no longer a popular revolution against a repressive regime, but a multi-party conflict in which al Qaeda-linked insurgents have gained the upper hand over secular rebel factions, and multiple other states have already been drawn in. As a result, a wholesale U.S. intervention could easily end up just making a bloody mess messier and bloodier still -- both for the Syrian people and for the United States.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, even now, the United States has the ability to stop the conflict, restore security, and enable a less predatory Syrian government to take hold. But either way, it's now largely irrelevant: Obama has made it clear that the only norm he's interested in trying to enforce militarily is the narrow norm against using chemical weapons, not the broader norm against slaughtering civilians.

It was the German philosopher Hegel -- Marx's foil in the opening lines of the Eighteenth Brumaire -- who famously insisted that true tragedy involves something far more complex and ambiguous than the defeat of good by evil. True tragedy, Hegel argued, involves a conflict between two goods, each too rigidly defined.

Marx got the best of Hegel rhetorically, but there's nothing farcical about Obama's handling of the crisis in Syria. History repeats itself, and it's tragedy every time.

Getty Images

By Other Means

Wounded Giant

The only thing America is good at these days is breaking things.

Pity poor President Obama. These days, he can't win.

Do nothing as the slaughter in Syria continues? Critics will say he's weak, he lacks strategic vision, he's indifferent to the suffering that Bashar al-Assad's regime is inflicting on the Syrian people, and he doesn't care whether Assad thumbs his nose at international law.

Take military action in Syria? Critics will say he's a reckless hawk, he lacks strategic vision, he's indifferent to the suffering a U.S. air campaign will inflict on the Syrian people, and he's thumbing his nose at international law.

It's not just Syria. It's Egypt, too, and the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring. It's the no-win endless war against al Qaeda and the no-win soon-to-end war in Afghanistan. It's the failed "reset" with Russia and the stillborn "pivot" to Asia. Look to your left, look to your right: You won't see many defenders of Obama's foreign policy these days.

But though Obama deserves some of the blame for his current predicament, it's not all his own fault. He's hamstrung by changes in global power structures, hampered by our national unwillingness to hear unpleasant truths, and forced into the appearance of hypocrisy by his reluctance to tell us what we don't want to hear.

Here are three uncomfortable truths Obama surely knows but won't say:

1. The American century is truly over.

America is a declining power. Because we live in Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average, you'll never hear the president acknowledge this in public, but it's true. Deal with it.

Blame "the rise of the rest." Europe, despite its various woes, has become a major power. China, India, and Brazil are playing ever larger roles on the world stage, and Russia is still strong enough to be a potent spoiler. Yes, we're still the world's most powerful state, but our relative power is declining as other states flex their political and economic muscles.

Blame technology. Technological change has made us less autonomous than we used to be. Blame air travel, the Internet, and the cell phone, which have collectively ushered in an era in which virtually everything -- people, ideas, images, money, weapons, pollution, viruses -- can zoom quickly around the globe. This, in turn, has created a host of problems no single state can solve alone. We're are no longer the sole authors of our national destiny.

And let's save some blame for ourselves. The country has made a hash of things. We squandered much of our moral credibility after the 9/11 attacks (torture and secret prisons) and wasted trillions of dollars on wars as ruinously expensive as they were politically inconclusive. Our current counterterrorism policies (drones, surveillance by the National Security Agency) are angering even our closest allies. Domestically, we're also in trouble: Our infrastructure is an embarrassment, our public education system has been allowed to decay, we lock up a higher percentage of our population than any country on Earth -- we're even too fat to fight. Not to mention, our domestic political system is broken, and the bipartisan rancor on Capitol Hill makes it hard to imagine turning any of this around.

2. No one really cares what we think, and we can't fix much of anything.

The United States no longer has the ability to mold the world into the shape it prefers. Countries that once courted us no longer trouble to seek our approval or agreement; our allies remain polite, but just barely, and our adversaries are increasingly willing to thumb their noses at us in public.

Sure, everyone's still happy to take our money -- what little we has left -- but even our wealth no longer buys much influence. The Egyptian military takes the $1.3 billion in aid we provide each year but ignores us when doing so suits it; the Egyptian military knows others will step forward to fill its coffers if we have a sudden attack of conscience. The Pakistani government takes our money and helps our enemies. Even our puppets refuse to act like puppets: We've has handed over endless suitcases of cash to Hamid Karzai's Afghan government, and all it has gotten us is a "partner" who denounces us on a regular basis.

So you want Obama to "fix things" in Syria or Egypt or Afghanistan? How? We can't even fix the public schools in the nation's capital. Why would anyone imagine we can fix things anywhere else?

3. Breaking things has become our main talent.

America has become a wounded giant. We're steadily weakening, but we're still strong enough to hurt a lot of people as we flail around. We can still summon up awesome destructive power, and in a world in which fewer and fewer people care about what we think or even need our money, it's increasingly tempting to fall back on brute force.

Back in 2001, we ousted the Taliban in a matter of weeks. In 2003, we pushed Saddam Hussein's forces out of Baghdad in similarly short order. In 2011, we demolished Muammar al-Qaddafi's military in a brief air campaign. So yes, we can teach Syria's Assad a lesson he won't forget (if one assumes he actually controls his own forces, which is far from certain): We can destroy his chemical weapons production capabilities, bomb his planes, and flatten his tanks.

Breaking things can feel satisfying, but as we've seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it only gets you so far. U.S. missile strikes against Assad's forces won't turn Syria into a stable democracy. They won't discredit or destroy Syria's Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. They probably won't stop the Syrian civil war either. As an ill-timed but candid letter from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) noted on Aug. 19: "[T]he use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.… [V]iolent struggles for power will continue after Assad's rule ends."

The costs of living in Lake Wobegon:

Obama is no one's fool. He understands that U.S. influence is declining and that our still-unparalleled power to destroy can tempt us into disaster. But he won't say any of this straight out.

Instead, he skates delicately around the edges of straight talk. He suggests that America can't solve all the world's problems. He reminds us, as he did in a CNN interview this month, that "the situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.… Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that … gets us mired in very difficult situations." But he won't tell Americans the blunt truths they need to hear: We can't fix Syria. Or Egypt. Or most other places. We don't even know how to fix our own problems.

Obama tends to couple even such mild reminders of U.S. limitations with Lake Wobegon-style cheerleading. "Around the world there is a new feeling about America," he enthused to Air Force Academy cadets in a 2012 speech. "There's a new confidence in our leadership.… The United States is stronger … and more respected in the world." The United States is "the greatest nation on earth," he gushed a few months later. Just this month, in the very same CNN interview in which he cautioned against rushing to action in Syria, he insisted that America is "the one indispensable nation."

I'm sympathetic to Obama's plight. Every time he tries to be halfway honest about declining U.S. power, the right jumps all over him. But his failure to be honest also comes with a cost.

When the president keeps insisting that the United States is the greatest/strongest/most beloved/most powerful country on Earth, here's what happens: The rest of us start to believe it, and we start to demand results that match the rhetoric. If we're so awesome and so strong, why aren't we fixing Syria? Why aren't we intimidating the Russians and getting the Egyptian military to behave and generally controlling the world as we see fit?

To Americans accustomed to a stream of triumphalist, exceptionalist rhetoric, Obama's failure to act forcefully in the face of other states' bad behavior doesn't look like the wisdom of a president who understands the increasing limits of American power -- it just looks like hypocrisy, lack of interest, or baffling passivity.

If Obama could bring himself to speak more honestly about the limits of American power, he might well pay a short-term political price -- but in the long term, he might also find Americans much more willing to cut him some slack.

Still more importantly, some increased presidential honesty about the decline of U.S. power might refocus Americans on the things that we can change. We can't fix Egypt or Syria, but we can make sure we don't provide money or weapons to actors who will use them to slaughter their own people. We can describe the world and its tragedies accurately, instead of destroying the English language in a foolish, ineffectual attempt to maintain our "influence." (See: The coup we won't call a coup). We can make sure we only engage in military interventions when we're quite certain we can do more good than harm.

Most of all, we can turn their attention to fixing some of the glaring social and economic injustices in our own society -- and we can try to live up to the human rights and rule-of-law standards that we have long urged on other states by taking a hard look at U.S. counterterrorism policies and their impact.

This is an argument for honesty, not for isolationism. We need to remain globally engaged, and yes, at times that may require the use of military force -- but our engagement should be predicated on a healthy understanding of our limits.

And who knows? If we devote more energy to living up to our own values and less to scolding or "punishing" others, we might find ourselves becoming a truly indispensible nation once again: a nation that inspires not resentment, but hope.

Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images