Is Obama Taking a Political Risk on Syria?

Today Glenn Reynolds wrote:

Obama Seeks a “Coalition of the Willing” on Syria. Hmm. Seeking a coalition of the willing to take down an Arab Ba’athist dictator over WMDs. Where have I heard this before?

Heh. We have seen President Obama continue and even amplify some of George W. Bush’s strategies in the war against Islamic terrorism. So, assuming that some sort of military action will be forthcoming in the next few days, is Syria an echo of Iraq?

Not really. President Bush was serious about getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s bloody and virulently anti-American tyranny. He also was serious about using Iraq as a test case to see whether Arab countries can sustain democratic institutions, and if so, whether those institutions can help usher in a transition to modernity. (That’s my interpretation of Bush’s intent, anyway.) Because he was serious, Bush committed substantial numbers of ground troops to the project of toppling Saddam.

Obama lacks a similarly serious objective in Syria. Why is he apparently now determined to take some kind of military action? I suspect his motives relate to domestic politics, as is nearly always the case. Obama has taken quite a bit of ridicule for his “red line” talk, and his failure so far to do anything to back it up. My guess is that Obama will do just enough to restore his credibility–in the eyes of his supporters, anyway–and no more. That most likely means a few cruise missiles aimed at military targets. Such strikes will probably have little or no impact on the balance of forces on the ground.

Assuming that Obama mounts such an ineffectual response, will it have any adverse political effects at home? No. Since the end of the Cold War, most Americans have cared little about foreign policy. Voters, for the most part, want only two things: that substantial numbers of American soldiers not be killed in overseas conflicts, and that the United States not be unduly humiliated.

Obama’s apparent Syria strategy satisfies these criteria. Lobbing a few missiles won’t do any good–in a situation where it is hard to say what is “good” from our perspective, anyway–but no Americans will be killed, so voters will be satisfied. To the extent that Obama is seen to back up his words and punish Assad, even minimally, that will be a plus.

Libya is a good precedent. Obama’s Libya policy was an utter failure. The United States participated in overthrowing Gaddafi for no apparent reason, in an action that created more problems than it solved. No one cared at the time, because Americans didn’t die.

But the Libyan adventure led directly to the Benghazi debacle, in which four Americans did die. Worse, the United States was humiliated when a mob of terrorists murdered our ambassador. Benghazi has, therefore, caused problems for Obama–although, to be sure, not as severe as he deserves. My guess is that Benghazi merely reinforces Obama’s native reluctance to involve American troops anywhere, and assures that his Syria response will be what Max Boot calls the “light” option–a few cruise missiles, period. If that is the case, the risk of any political blowback here in the U.S. is essentially zero, unless something goes badly awry.

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