The Bed Obama and Kerry Made
America's way of war: from shock-and-awe to forewarn-and-irritate.
By Bret Stephens, WSJ Opinion, Sept 9, 2013
So much for John Kerry's "global test," circa 2004. So much for Barack Obama slamming the Bush administration for dismissing "European reservations about the wisdom and necessity of the Iraq war," circa 2007. So much for belittling foreign leaders who side with the administration as "poodles." So much for the U.N. stamp of legitimacy. So much for the "lie/die" rhyme popular with Democrats when they were accusing George W. Bush of fiddling with the WMD intelligence.
Say what you will about the prospect of a U.S. strike on Syria, it has already performed one useful service: exposing the low dishonesty, the partisan opportunism, the intellectual flabbiness, the two-bit histrionics and the dumb hysteria that was the standard Democratic attack on the Bush administration's diplomatic handling of the war in Iraq.
In politics as in life, you lie in the bed you make. The president and his secretary of state are now lying in theirs. So are we.
And then some. All Americans are reduced when Mr. Kerry, attempting to distinguish an attack on Syria with the war in Iraq, described the former as "unbelievably small." Does the secretary propose to stigmatize the use of chemical weapons by bombarding Bashar Assad, evil tyrant, with popcorn? When did the American way of war go from shock-and-awe to forewarn-and-irritate?
Americans are reduced, also, when an off-the-cuff remark by Mr. Kerry becomes the basis of a Russian diplomatic initiative—immediately seized by an Assad regime that knows a sucker's game when it sees one—to hand over Syria's stocks of chemical weapons to international control. So now we're supposed to embark on months of negotiation, mediated by our friends the Russians, to get Assad to relinquish a chemical arsenal he used to deny having, now denies using, and will soon deny secretly maintaining?
One of the favorite Democratic attack lines against the Bush administration was that it was "incompetent." Maybe so, but competence is also a matter of comparison.
So let's compare. The administration will be lucky to win an unbelievably thin congressional majority for its unbelievably small plan of attack. By contrast, the October 2002 authorization for military force in Iraq passed by an easy 77-23 margin in the Senate and a 296-133 margin in the House.
The administration also touts the support of 24 countries—Albania and Honduras are on board!—who have signed a letter condemning Assad's use of chemical weapons "in the strongest terms," though none of them, except maybe France, are contemplating military action. Yet Mr. Bush assembled a coalition of 40 countries who were willing to deploy troops to Iraq—a coalition Mr. Kerry mocked as inadequate and illegitimate when he ran for president in 2004.
Then there's the intel. In London the other day, Mr. Kerry invited the public to examine the administration's evidence of Assad's use of chemical weapons, posted on whitehouse.gov. The "dossier" consists of a 1,455-word document heavy on blanket assertions such as "we assess with high confidence" and "we have a body of information," and "we have identified one hundred videos."
By contrast, the Bush administration made a highly detailed case on Iraqi WMD, including show-and-tells by Colin Powell at the Security Council. It also relied on the testimony of U.N. inspectors like Hans Blix, who reported in January 2003 that "there are strong indications that Iraq produced more anthrax than it declared," that his inspectors had found "indications that the [nerve agent VX] was weaponized," and that Iraq had "circumvented the restrictions" on the import of missile parts.
The case the Bush administration assembled on Iraqi WMD was far stronger than what the Obama administration has offered on Syria. And while I have few doubts that the case against Assad is solid, it shouldn't shock Democrats that the White House's "trust us" approach isn't winning converts. When you've spent years peddling the libel that the Bush administration lied about Iraq, don't be shocked when your goose gets cooked in the same foul sauce.
So what should President Obama say when he addresses the country Tuesday night? He could start by apologizing to President Bush for years of cheap slander. He won't. He could dispense with the talk of "global norms" about chemical weapons and instead talk about the American interest in punishing Assad. He might. He could give Americans a goal worth fighting for: depose Assad, secure the chemical weapons, lead from the front, and let Syrians sort out the rest. Well, let's hope.
In the meantime, Republicans should ponder what their own political posturing on Syria might mean for the future. When a Republican president, faced with a Democratic House, feels compelled to take action against some other rogue regime, will they rue their past insistence on congressional approval?
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