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Let’s not wait years to try and restore American credibility

I’ve added to our “picks” section a column by the estimable Pete Wehner opposing a strike on Syria. Peter makes a good argument, but acknowledges, as any fair-minded observer must, that “there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides and potential downsides to each course of action.”

Pete seems to have been moved to oppose intervention at least in part by a statement John Kerry made today:

We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.

Kerry was saying that the U.S. effort would be unbelievably small and limited, not that its impact on Syria would be. In his testimony to both chambers of Congress, Kerry’s position was that the attack would be designed to have a substantial impact on Syria. This should not require a major effort.

But I want to focus on this statement by Pete: “The restoration of American credibility will probably have to await a new American president (think of Reagan following Carter).”

I think it’s unlikely that if Congress won’t authorize Obama to engage in a limited air attack against a country like Syria, American credibility will be restored by a new president. Wehner obviously has in mind a Republican president who would act in a muscular way.

But a Republican president who attempted to act muscularly could expect no backing at all from Democrats in Congress — not after the traditionally-interventionist Republican party fails to back Obama. Moreover, that president could not expect anything close to full backing from Republicans. The Republican opposition to military action against Assad isn’t limited to partisan opportunists and those who support intervention generally but don’t trust Obama. There are plenty of “come home America” Republican legislators.

What is true of Congress would also be true of the public at large. Democrats won’t wish to restore American credibility through force, and many Republicans won’t either. It will take something very jarring, e.g., another 9/11, to change this.

Nor, even if Wehner is right, is it wise to wait for the next president to restore American credibility when there is a chance that the current president will. Obama is finally prepared to use force — maybe sufficient force to make a difference. It’s unfortunate that many Republicans, including those who complain that Obama hates to exercise American power against our enemies, prefer that he back down to Syria and Iran, thus proving beyond doubt that America lacks credibility and is sidelined in the Middle East.

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