Opinion

The dumb war in Syria will haunt Democrats' 2014 prospects

Leave the starting of unwinnable wars to the GOP

The only thing up for grabs in the 2014 election is the Senate, and while it's probably going to be a squeaker, election analysts are now projecting that the Republicans will take control of the chamber. This is a reversal from only a couple weeks ago, when Democrats had the edge. What gives?

Democrats, particularly President Obama, are throwing this thing away with the war in Syria.

Midterm elections are typically a low-turnout affair with the victor determined by base mobilization. And committed Democrats are not feeling engaged — quantifiably there's a 15 percent gap between how many Republicans and Democrats have the election on their mind, according to Gallup.

And no wonder. What few new victories Dems have scratched from Obama's second term — new EPA regulations on coal power, for example — are working through the Byzantine rule-making process, making it nearly impossible to know how things are going. (Though to be fair ObamaCare implementation is turning out to be a huge success.) Immigration reform, the party's other major priority, is shelved indefinitely. And now we're undertaking a new pointless war in the Middle East.

Of course, that doesn't mean Republicans would be better at governing — as always, they're worse on any conceivable metric. But campaigns are usually better driven by positive enthusiasm than by wearied resentment of the other side — especially when it seems like one's own side isn't holding to important principles.

Ron Fournier, high priest of DC pundit clowns, has become a punchline for his constant sermonizing about how President Obama won't lead. But on the issue of war, it's a question worth asking (though Fournier himself naturally abandons his trolling at such a moment). When it comes to foreign policy, the president's power is effectively limitless. If Obama was committed to avoiding a new war, it's highly unlikely that the prostrate Congress would lift a finger to stop him. But instead, he seems every day more similar to his predecessor. One Democrat emailed Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall:

Speaking for myself, when the whole "we're gonna bomb ISIS" thing happened, my own thoughts / feelings were, "Great, here we go again, only this time with Obama instead of Bush." I found myself disheartened that we were once again going into an armed conflict in the Middle East which promised (literally!) to be long, which had relatively vague goals, and which left-of-center thought leaders were skeptical of (both the goals and the viability of achieving them with the plans the Obama administration laid out). [Talking Points Memo]

This person is right to be skeptical! The war in Syria, barely a week old, is already backfiring. It is pushing ISIS towards Kurdistan and has led to a reconciliation between ISIS and the local al Qaeda affiliate. U.S. strikes have hit critical grain supplies and killed civilians on several occasions. The broader strategic incoherence is so wretched that bitter, black comedy feels like the best response.

The only reason we're doing this at all is obviously because of the ISIS beheading videos. Roughly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war, including many American journalists. But the beheading videos of two Americans, coupled with shameless fearmongering on the part of the mainstream media, seriously influenced public opinion.

What seems equally clear, however, is that when this new war goes south, public opinion will sour quickly. Our history of intervening in civil wars is abysmal. We lost in Vietnam, we lost in Iraq, and Afghanistan is still on a losing trajectory. There is every reason to believe Syria will go at least as poorly as all those failures, if not worse.

Most Americans basically understand this, I think, despite the genuine horror of the beheading videos. Now, polls show bipartisan approval for airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, but there are reasons to doubt that will last. Support for putting American troops into combat is still fairly low and approval for this war is actually below average when taken in the context of past conflicts.

I also believe that a majority of people — and Democratic voters in particular — would have responded favorably to the president trying to calm people, reminding us that ISIS is not an existential threat, and that there are limits to American power. That was Obama's greatest political strength, once. Instead we get macho swaggering that could have been copy-pasted from George W. Bush's term.

A recent piece in The New York Times detailed a bunch of U.S. military officials complaining that Obama was unfairly blaming them for not noticing the rise of ISIS. But let's face facts: expecting our jalopy institutions to successfully navigate the rapidly shifting tangle of alliances in Syria is ludicrous. America is a country where the Secret Service doesn't notice the White House has been shot until four days after the fact, and is apparently unfamiliar with how door locks work.

Democrats would do better to focus on presenting the American people with a real choice, and leave the omnidirectional belligerence to the GOP.

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