Well, nobody ever said it was easy being commander-in-chief, especially when you’re running a war that nobody (starting with you) really wants. And you have to go on America’s most-watched television news magazine show and admit that the intel was all screwed up. And the people we’re supposedly “degrading” with all these airstrikes are suddenly within a few miles of the Turkish border in Syria, while in Iraq they are by some accounts within a few miles of Baghdad (although this is contradicted by other accounts).
This war has taken a quick turn for the worse, or perhaps two or three of them. And then, as background music to all the above, there’s the festering issue of its legality, both under international and domestic law, and the role of Congress in all this. Barack Obama is in for a rougher-than-usual couple of months. From the right, he is going to keep getting hammered for not having acted sooner. From the left, and perhaps from some corners of the right as well, for having acted too soon, or at least for having acted without congressional consent.
Both sets of critics have a point, and yet at the same time, both are making criticisms of expediency that elide the impossible complexity of this situation. If we are actually going to defeat this Islamic State, a little more patience and honesty are going to be required.
I was on Tamron Hall’s MSNBC show Monday, and she played a clip of Peter King, the Long Island Republican congressman who well articulates the hawkish critique from the right. You’ve heard it many times: that Obama dilly-dallied for two years ago and should have been arming the Syria rebels before, or all this never would have happened.
King could be right. With some reservations, I have basically agreed with the King/Hillary Clinton position. In August 2013, I wrote that bombing Syria (this was after news hit of the chemical attacks) was very risky but defensible and maybe inevitable. So I get King’s argument. Where I differ with him is that he isn’t, you know, God, and thus he can’t possibly know what would have happened if Obama had armed the rebels in 2012. So while it’s possible that King is right, there’s also a chance that we just could have ended up arming ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and the situation might have been worse.
But here’s the reality that King’s position ignores: American public opinion. At the time of the chemical weapons story last August, when Obama was considering a short bombing campaign in Syria, public opinion was strongly against it. A president can’t just go around ignoring that on a matter of war. As to the question of arming the rebels, there was probably no strong public sentiment one way or the others, so a King might argue that Obama could have shaped public opinion in a favorable direction there. That is possible. But it’s also possible that if Obama had made a big deal about explaining to the American public where Syria is and who Bashar al-Assad is and who these rebels are and what the plan was, that public might well have said no dice, buster, not our fight.
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