Conservatives today are incensed that President Obama didn't plunge America deeply into a needless war in Syria two years ago. They see a refugee crisis expanding to destabilize the region, the emergence of Russia as a key regional player in the Middle East, and the threat of terror in Europe and think, "If only Obama had sunk us deeper into this mess!"
But two years ago, it was conservative opposition to a needless war in Syria that stopped Obama from plunging in.
This history is clear. It is undeniable. But many of my fellow conservatives, when faced with the choice of acknowledging reality or deriding a Democratic president as weak and feckless, will always and infallibly choose the latter.
This isn't a new tactic. But it still has a disastrous effect on the Republican Party. It means that when Obama does some stupidly hawkish thing, like trying to manipulate the Syrian war through training programs, or knocking over a government in Libya, the Republicans' only response is to try and outbid him on stupidity or hawkishness. Usually both.
A jeremiad by Walter Russell Mead provides an almost perfect specimen of the genre. He says that the Syrian refugee crisis is "the direct consequence of President Obama's decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn." Mead claims that many who oppose resettling Syrian refugees in the states "were willing to sign up for the U.S. military and go to fight ISIS in Syria to protect the refugees." He castigates the administration because its "extreme caution about engagement in Syria led it to insist on such a thorough process of vetting potential Syrian allies that years of effort and tens of millions of dollars resulted in only a paltry handful of people being found acceptable to receive American weapons and training." Mead works himself up:
The collapse of President Obama's Syria policy is hardly a partisan issue. He has repeatedly overruled his own national security officials, top diplomats, and advisors, many of whom have been horrified by the president's passivity in the face of onrushing disaster. [American Interest]
There is a lot to criticize about Obama's Syria policy. But Mead's charge is bunk from end to end. The president recognized the legitimacy of certain rebel groups to rule Syria as far back as December 2012, essentially wish-casting the end of the Assad regime. The administration, though it never quite admitted it openly, also began arming the rebels. This covert arming was not exactly cautious, and far from effective. Islamist rebels simply began to steal the weapons from America's preferred rebels. The Islamists also stole American materiel from Iraq. Thus we now have an exquisite testimony to American foreign policy, where a "moderate" rebel uses an American-provided TOW missile system to destroy an American humvee used by an Islamist.
Yes, it's true that in 2013 Obama stumbled into drawing a "red line" on Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. And then, when it seemed to be crossed, he took an opportunity to back away from the line, accepting a Russian offer to take chemical weapons from Assad. But Republicans are responsible for drawing him back from that red line. Obama demanded a vote on action in Syria, properly, given that war powers are supposed to rest with the representatives of the people. Republicans balked.
Obama made the case for war with Syria. He gave a primetime speech about his red line. He pitched an interventionist policy to the G20 summit in Russia. He sent his Cabinet out, including Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to testify before Congress, along with his chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The GOP came out against it. Even some of the most hawkish among them. Although for most of 2013, Marco Rubio had criticized Obama, saying that the "time for passive engagement has come to an end," he bowed to public opinion — even among conservatives — and voted against authorizing strikes.
"I have never supported the use of U.S. military force in the conflict. And I still don't," Rubio explained, quite inaccurately. Rubio was not alone. Many GOP senators and congressmen who took free shots at Obama for not engaging in Syria during the summer of 2013, suddenly, when asked to support such an action themselves, folded entirely.
One reason why they suddenly stood against plunging into Syria: Public opinion was overwhelmingly against the war.
A solid 55 percent majority said the U.S. should "do nothing and stay out of the Syrian civil war." Just 21 percent endorsed the option Obama prefers: launching "a limited military strike, using only air power, to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons." Few preferred more-aggressive options, with 6 percent saying the U.S. should mount a sustained air campaign "to help rebels overthrow the Syrian government" and 6 percent more saying the U.S. should pursue regime change with both air power and ground troops. [National Journal]
At the time, Americans were (understandably) exhausted of war in the Middle East and (rightly) skeptical of America's ability to shape events and new regimes there. And they still are. The only thing that polls well about Syria is the empty promise to destroy ISIS with air power.
Republicans are so obsessed with blaming Obama for being cowardly and feckless in the Middle East, they cannot see that instead he has been reckless and too full of bravado. They castigate him for not halting a refugee crisis by means of war actions that surely would have exacerbated that refugee crisis. And it was a war they passed on when it was offered to them.
Obama's foreign policy in Syria has been stupid. But the Republican response to it has descended into gibbering insanity.