You go to war with the president you have

At Ricochet, Arthur Herman, a historian for whom I have great respect, argues that we shouldn’t want President Obama to attack Syria because we shouldn’t want this particular president “to make any decisions where American interests are at stake — and where Americans, and possibly many others, may die.” This is true, Herman contends, even if there is a strong case for intervening in Syria.

I agree with Herman’s critique of Obama’s “serial weakness in his dealings with Iran, with China, and with Vladimir Putin.” I also agree that Obama has displayed “serial incompetence in Egypt” and “negligence and irresponsibility in Libya and Benghazi– not to mention…mendacity in covering up that negligence.”

It’s almost enough to persuade me that Herman is right. However, I am not persuaded.

First, whether Obama intervenes or not, he will inevitably make decisions regarding Syria “where American interests are at stake.” A decision not to intervene — the decision he has made for two years — affects event in Syria. And the U.S. has an interest, whether it intervenes or not, in the outcome of the civil war.

It matters to the U.S. whether control of Syria remains in the hands of Assad (now basically a client of Iran) or falls into the hands of either Islamic extremists or Muslims who are less extreme. And it should matter to the U.S. whether the use of chemical weapons to murder large numbers of non-combatants goes unpunished.

Second, Herman’s argument, it seems to me, would have counseled against wanting Obama not to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan — an action that put U.S. lives in harms way and affected our relations with the Pakistanis. It would counsel, I take it, against ever using force against Iran during the Obama administration, even if we reach the point that the Iranians are on the verge of attacking Israel with nuclear weapons.

Third, the consequence of inaction in response to criminality is usually more criminality. If Obama doesn’t act against Assad, he and his allies — Hezbollah and Iran — are likely to become emboldened. I don’t think we should encourage these actors do their worst until January 2017 (and let’s not assume that, even then, we’ll have a president upon whose judgment we can rely; we may have Obama’s former partner in fecklessness).

The world is a dangerous place — too dangerous for us to wish the U.S. to rule out one set of responses — sometimes the only effective kind — just because Barack Obama is president.

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