Three noteworthy things here. First, Obama probably has concluded that voters will go no further than supplying insignificant arms. This, however, is not to say that voters affirmatively support such a policy. Rather, it means that this is the most Obama believes he can get away with given that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to any U.S. military action (almost 3-to-1 according to Gallup).
Second, notice the joint position of McCain, Graham and Clinton (as I’ve arguedrepeatedly, the transnational progressivism that steers U.S. foreign policy is abipartisan phenomenon). It is reminiscent of the same arguments made by theGOP’s McCain wing and the Obama administration in connection with the Libyan debacle: No need for the president to go to Congress for authorization to launch an unpopular war; he should just order it and the public will come along.
This is how we get into, and double down on, so many failed foreign policy experiments: The president unilaterally orders them and then those who favor them say, regardless of the naysayers’ misgivings or the objective foolishness of the policy, that we are now obliged to support it because presidential (and thus, American) credibility is on the line. This is especially the case when American troops are put in harm’s way — even those who oppose the commitment of our forces do not want to undermine them, no matter how wayward the mission.
The answer to this is to go to Congress. If there is a congressional debate – such as the ones President Bush 41 and President Bush 43 wisely encouraged rather than unilaterally using force against Saddam Hussein’s regime – the interventionists can make their case and, should they prevail, rally crucial political support for their cause. As I noted elsewhere over the weekend, GOP Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee have joined two Democratic counterparts, Senators Chris Murphy and Tom Udall, in offering legislation that would block direct or indirect aid for military or paramilitary operations in Syria. The debate is thus already on – the one we should have had over Libyan intervention.
Third, John points out that even if McCain & Co. were correct that public support would materialize once the president ordered aggressive intervention, support would evaporate unless it appeared the rebels would win reasonably rapidly. John may be right that this conclusion is supported by past experience. I respectfully submit, however, that public perceptions have changed in a manner that renders past experience less useful than usual.
For one thing, not only the Benghazi massacre but the slew of controversies engulfing the Obama administration – the scandals involving abuse of bureaucratic power and public outrage at the extent of government monitoring of Americans – are prompting a backlash. A unilateral presidential ordering of force in this climate is more likely to harden and increase opposition than to result in grudging support.
Relatedly, there is the growing sense – in the country if not in the Beltway – that Obama is on the wrong side in the Middle East. This is not to say there is a “right side” in Syria. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there is not – the conflict pits anti-Americans against anti-Americans.