If We Stay Out of Syria, Assad Has Bush to Thank

No wonder the American public is wary of intervening in Syria. The last time a president tried to push war in the Middle East, he sold a pack of lies. By Michael Tomasky

09.04.13 8:45 AM ET

So here, potentially, if Congress votes against using force in Syria, is another black item to add to the legacy of the Bush administration: Their lies may help enable Bashar al-Assad to get away with mass murder.

You think that’s a reach? If that’s a reach, then tell me why Barack Obama, in brief public remarks on Syria Monday morning, said this: “The key point I want to emphasize to the American people … the military plan that has been developed by our joint chiefs, and that I think is appropriate, is proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground… This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan. This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime but also to other countries that may be interested in testing these international norms that there are consequences.”

This is not Iraq … Monday morning, I was on Bill Press’s radio show. Eleanor Holmes Norton came on while I was on, and Elijah Cummings had been on before. Both are Democratic House members, of course, and are Obama loyalists. Norton said that if a vote took place that day, it wouldn’t come close to passing. Cummings said his mail was 95 percent against force, and the main reason was the ghost of Iraq. This kept coming up also in another radio show I did Monday out of my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. One sees it across Twitter and Facebook. The American people fear another Iraq war.

I will argue below that I believe these fears are, or let’s hedge it a little and say could well be, overblown. But first let’s talk about the corrosive and, as it turns out, very long-term impact of making policy based on a pack of lies. Every major statement made about Saddam by every leading Bush official was a lie. Colin Powell lied at the United Nations. Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice lied about mushroom clouds coming our way in six months. Paul Wolfowitz lied airily about what a waltz it would all be. George Bush himself never quite lied—they at least knew better than to put outright lies in the mouth of the president. But he did mislead mightily. A mansion of lies.

Fooled once back in 2003, the American people are now apparently taking the view that they won’t get fooled again. “Fool me twice, shame on me” is usually a sensible posture in life, but there’s a big problem in this case. The Obama administration is not lying. If you haven’t read the official report you may want to take a few moments and do so. It’s quite solid. True, we do not know to a 100 percent certainty that it was Assad and not some rebel faction. And the report doesn’t say 100 percent. But it does assert, and explain why, it’s extremely likely that this was the regime.

And so, people telling the truth and reluctantly trying to enforce a century-old international taboo are paying the price levied by a bunch of war-mongering liars, that price being that the people don’t want to believe a word their government says to them. They won’t even take the time to sort out the difference, which is vast and qualitative, between a few days’ worth of air sorties and sending 130,000 soldiers in on the ground to wage battle. Even if it’s a few weeks’ worth, casualties are unlikely. Bill Clinton’s air campaign against Kosovo lasted three months, and not one American soldier died in combat.

I support limited and proportional strikes for two reasons. First, of all the factors that have to be ranked here as one stumbles toward one’s conclusion, I still rank number one the fact that use of chemical weapons must be punished. Chemical weapons have no military utility. They are used these days only against civilians. If you oppose U.S. militarism from the left, or if you are an isolationist on the right, you have a responsibility to explain why a dictator who killed 1,400 of his own people with chemical weapons should go unpunished.

Second, I think an action can be contained. Here people always invoke Vietnam. Once you start down that road. Well, fair enough. Obviously, no one wants that. But I say if you look at the full historical record in the post-World War II era, you see many instances of the United States undertaking military adventures of various sorts that never ballooned into full-scale war or became quagmires. Granted, Syria is a complicated and frightening place. But the record shows that everything doesn’t become a Vietnam; far from it.

Right now, I’m in the clear minority. Two polls out Monday, from Pew and WashPost/ABC, have respondents opposing air strikes by about two-to-one. Public sentiment as expressed to members of Congress is going to be much more lopsidedly against action than that. Obama has to make his case. He needs to give a primetime Oval Office address explaining all these things to the people and see if he can move the needle then.

If he can’t, chalk it up partly to general suspicion of entanglement in the Middle East, to be sure. But chalk it up also to the lies used to peddle the last war. It’s not a problem that that war of choice turned the American people (temporarily) against war. That’s clearly a good thing. But it also turned them into reflexive cynics who assume their government is lying even when it’s telling the truth and who now suspect that every military incursion is somehow bound to turn into Iraq. Assad is getting away with murder and partly has the Bush crew to thank.