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Striking Syria: Is Obama too Much Like Bush -- or not Enough?

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, September 12, 2013

For a president who distinguished himself from his predecessor by promising to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama suddenly appears determined to maroon his own presidency in Syria. But critics who worry that Obama is imitating George W. Bush are missing the central irony in his predicament -- which stems from his failure to mimic Bush closely enough.

It isn't that Obama should fabricate an existential threat from Bashar al-Assad, as the Bush administration did in its campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. Indeed, Obama's difficulty in mustering public support for action against Assad is rooted in universal disillusionment with the fraudulent rhetoric of mushroom clouds, al-Qaida links and weapons of mass destruction that once emanated from the Bush White House and its allies. Neither should Obama ignore international criticism, as Bush did, nor dismiss the results of U.N. inspections.

But what enabled Bush to invade Iraq -- and what Obama plainly lacks -- was a comprehensive and determined effort to persuade the public that the dictatorship at issue had violated international law, threatened its neighbors and world security -- and therefore invited a military response. Designed to penetrate deeply into the mainstream and conservative media and to influence Congress and U.S. allies abroad, that effort created an almost inexorable pull toward war. Although the evidence presented by the White House was paper-thin and largely manufactured, it nevertheless sufficed with the full force of the presidency driving the argument.

Flash forward to the present, where Obama has approached Syria with the very different -- and typically diffident -- style that is all too familiar by now. Aside from occasional echoes of tinny rhetoric about Hitler and Munich, the concerted push of the post-9/11 Bush administration is wholly absent today. Yet unlike the hyped intelligence assembled then to indict the Iraqi dictator, the evidence incriminating the Assad regime is powerful and persuasive, going well beyond the vexed question of the chemical attack last month. While prosecuting the civil war, Syrian forces have repeatedly violated international law with indiscriminate and intentional targeting of civilians, use of cluster bombs and other banned munitions, unspeakable atrocities inflicted on women, children and unarmed men, and interference with humanitarian assistance desperately needed by its victims.

In short, there is an argument for strong action against the Syrian regime -- possibly even for military action led by the United States. But unlike the dogged propagandists of the Bush era, the Obama administration has done precious little to advance such an argument. Instead, the president has dithered over aid to the democratic rebels, drawn a "red line" around chemical weapons that served as an excuse for inaction and scarcely prepared to respond when that line was finally crossed.

Obama's past mistakes cannot obscure the responsibility to try to protect the Syrian people -- a duty shared not only by Americans, including Congress, but by the rest of the world community, too. The question is how to fulfill that obligation without making matters worse. It isn't true that firing cruise missiles at Syrian targets will inevitably widen the war or draw the United States more deeply into the conflict, but it appears unwise to assume the risks of a military strike that may accomplish very little. It would be far better to act with broad support from traditional allies and the American public -- and to formulate a plan that could eventually force Assad and his moderate adversaries toward negotiation.

The president acted correctly in seeking congressional approval. Now he should wait for the U.N. inspectors to complete their report and bring their evidence before the Security Council. Without a persuasive rationale for military action, he isn't likely to prevail on Capitol Hill or in Turtle Bay this time. But if he truly believes that the Assad regime must be forced to stop its criminal killing and negotiate, he will continue to develop a case and a strategy, both here and around the world. Obama's presidency need not sink in Syria -- but he will have to demonstrate clarity, resolve and persistence that last beyond the coming weeks.

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