As President Obama moves toward launching military strikes against the Syrian regime, some have been quick to charge him with hypocritically following in the footsteps of the president he long sought to repudiate: George W. Bush.
Ron Paul kicked things off two months ago with a baseless charge of "fixing the intelligence and facts around the already determined policy." More recently, a leading Russian legislator claimed Obama would be "Bush's clone" because "just like in Iraq, this war won't be legit." Fox News columnist and strident U.N. critic Anne Bayefsky declared that Obama will be seen as a "hypocrite or a fraud" for not pursuing a U.N. Security Council resolution after "bashing" Bush on similar grounds.
The Bush swipe is a cheap shot. It also misses the far more relevant historical parallel. Obama is not walking in Bush's footsteps, but Woodrow Wilson's.
As World War I raged in Europe and civil war erupted in Mexico, Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War." But Wilson's slogan proved ephemeral, and his strategy of "armed neutrality" finally gave way in the face of German aggression.
Similarly, Obama won the presidency in no small part because of anti-Iraq War sentiment, and was re-elected at least in part for following through on withdrawal. Now Obama faces his own second-term Wilson moment, as Syria's genocidal tactics severely test President Obama's foreign policy goals of facilitating democracy, strengthening international institutions, and avoiding "dumb wars" that sap American lives, resources, and global influence.
The similarities do not end there. Both Wilson and Obama sought to turn away from the imperialism of their predecessors while embracing the use of American influence to spread the right of self-determination abroad. Both expressed restraint regarding the use of military force, yet both pushed back on pacifist constituencies in their political bases and kept their options open. Both were charged with vacillation, and both suffered the occasional rhetorical misstep, as they walked those fine lines in the run-up to military action.
Obama was knocked for drawing a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons without being prepared to follow through, arguably giving Syria license to go farther. Wilson quickly regretted saying America was "too proud to fight" in May 1915, three days after Germany sunk the Lusitania and killed 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. Seven months later, Wilson recalibrated. During a speaking tour promoting a new policy of military preparedness, Wilson made a clear break with his party's pacifist wing: "There is a price which is too great to pay for peace, and that price can be put in one word. One cannot pay the price of self-respect."
Still, Wilson's restraint continued through the 1916 re-election campaign. Then less than three months after Election Day, Germany secretly cabled Mexico, proposing an alliance and offering three American states upon victory. Britain intercepted the code and fed it to Wilson, who publicized it and then took another two months before concluding it was time to enter the war.
Wilson risked being portrayed as a hypocrite, or even an outright liar, considering his campaign slogan. But as it turned out, his patient deliberation and clear reluctance for war buttressed his credibility when the moment for intervention came, helping to bring along a reluctant public.
Most importantly, Wilson did not betray his core principles. He did not flip from isolationism to imperialism. He had been seeking to play the role of peace broker, and end the war in a fashion that would move the world away from colonization and toward self-determination.
Shortly before he knew of Germany's Mexican machinations, he laid out his vision in his "Peace Without Victory" address. Instead of a harsh peace in which the victor punishes the defeated, claims new territory, and sows the seeds of future conflict, Wilson saw a compromise settlement between belligerents, moving the world towards democratic governance and establishing a new "League of Nations" international body to prevent future world wars.
Wilson stuck by this vision even after he picked a side in the war, rejecting calls from both allies abroad and Republicans at home for an "unconditional surrender."
Here too does Obama overlap with Wilson. Military action in Syria is not a betrayal of Obama's foreign policy principles.
This is not a repeat of Bush-style neo-conservatism. There is nothing from the Obama White House that suggests a desire to handpick Syria's leaders, establish permanent military bases, or claim natural resources. While Obama may not seek a U.N. Security Council resolution as he did to oust Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, he is also not suddenly snubbing international law, as he reportedly sees justification in existing treaties such as the Geneva Conventions and the Chemical Weapons Conventions.
The administration's emphasis on limited strikes makes clear that President Obama still wants to do all he can to avoid ending his presidency with a "dumb war" that would mire the United States in a hopeless quagmire.
The White House has even stated that the military strikes will not be designed to spark "regime change," instead stressing that "resolution of this conflict has to come through political negotiation and settlement." In other words, it anticipates some sort of power-sharing agreement between Syrian factions, leading to a government that is fully representative of all Syrian people. This policy objective harkens back to Wilson's "Peace Without Victory."
Of course, none of the above guarantees that Obama's vision will triumph. Wilson learned that the hard way.
Wilson did succeed in accelerating the end of the war and jump-starting a negotiated settlement. But after long multi-party negotiations that he personally undertook, Wilson reluctantly accepted harsher terms for Germany's surrender than he deemed fair. And a debilitating stroke in 1919 muddled his thinking and warped his ability to compromise with the Republican-led Senate, dooming ratification of the treaty and America's entry into the League of Nations.
But Wilson's inability to close the deal doesn't mean he was foolish to try. He came pretty close, and a healthier Wilson with a stronger foreign policy team could well have pulled it off. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt's team did just that, proving Wilson's wisdom correct with the founding of the U.N. after World War II. We have not suffered world wars since.
Obama may be taking a mighty gamble, but it is in pursuit of self-determination and an international order intolerant of genocide, not an ignoble quest for empire.
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