Remember John Kerry, the guy who built his political career by testifying against a war? Nowadays, he can be found on Capitol Hill, trying his damnedest to convince members of Congress to vote in favor of a war. What does this mean about his character? Very little, really, unless you can dig deeper into the specifics and compare similar conflicts with similar aims and issues. That case can certainly be made, but it’s not as simple as a lot of people pretend.
It would be rather disappointing to see Democrats who typically oppose all wars vote in favor of this one just to save a president’s rear end. It would be dispiriting to think (as many liberal pundits have suggested) that conservatives are only breaking against this war because Obama is president.
And sure, there’s probably some of that going on here, especially among the public — a great deal of partisanship out there, one might say. But in fact, both characterizations are misleading, especially when it comes to elected officials.
First, let’s not confuse correlation with causation. Do Republicans oppose this war because Obama is president? Or does Obama, who generally doesn’t agree with Republicans on other issues, also disagree with most Republicans fundamentally on what sort of conflicts America should fight? That is to say, is Obama, due to his liberal worldview, prone to picking peculiarly “liberal-friendly” conflicts that Democrats tend to favor and Republicans tend to oppose? I think that’s really what’s going on here.
Remember when Howard Dean, vocal opponent of the Iraq War, called on President Bush to invade Liberia? Or think of Kosovo, a conflict very much unlike the two in Iraq which took place before and after. That was chosen by a (relatively) liberal president and it engendered a significant amount of Republican opposition. It wasn’t just that Bill Clinton was a Democrat — it was in no small part because of the nature of the conflict itself.
There are some Republicans and quite a few more Democrats who oppose most or all military interventions in principle. But for many others, not all wars are created equal. There are wars to like and wars to dislike, and one’s opinions vary with one’s view of the world.
For a few decades now, Democratic presidents have tended to favor humanitarian interventions that are frequently criticized as lacking any clear American interest, real or imagined. These tend to be unpopular (as with Kosovo or Haiti), and Republicans traditionally object to them. On the Republican side, they like decisive wars where there are clear U.S. interests (real or imagined) at stake, and these are usually criticized as overly self-interested. Republican wars tend to be very popular at first, then decline rapidly in popularity as reality sets in.
Another thing that makes this particular conflict unique — and probably harder for Democrats to swallow than others — is that in addition to the lack of a clear U.S. interest, there’s also no clear plan or definition of success in Syria, precisely because President Obama is so hesitant to make any significant effort at the end of a decade of non-stop war.
Even “liberal” wars usually have goals. In Desert Storm, we went to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In the War of Iraq, we went in with the specific purpose of regime change. In Libya, we intervened to turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, with the clear goal of ousting its ruler. In Kosovo, we tried to prevent a genocide from proceeding by expelling the perceived aggressors from a particular geographic area. Like them or not, there were goals in all of these conflicts, whether or not there were legitimate (or real) interests.
The Obama administration’s explanation for what it wants to do in Syria, by comparison to any of these, is a mess. The goals are murkier than those in Kosovo — we don’t even have a particular area of the country that we want to protect or partition, just a message we want to send. That’s why it seems perfectly legitimate for even the most saber-rattling, war-loving congressman to question this war.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s presentation to the Senate was hopelessly convoluted. He argued that this war would not be a war. He refused to acknowledge, when questioned by Senator Paul, that his appearance before Congress had any serious purpose, reserving the president’s right to make war with or without its permission. He introduced the heretofore untried argument that this use of military force was wise because it won’t get any clear result (such as regime change). The president himself has made the dubious claim that Syria’s chemical capability poses a threat to the United States. Practically no one really believes this last point. That’s why there’s so much skepticism among members of Congress who might have supported other conflicts where that at least seemed plausible.
It’s certainly true that a lot of the anti-war crowd are now lying low. It’s certainly true that many antagonists of President Obama have supported past wars. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s a hypocrite — which you’ll hear a lot in the coming weeks. Some of them are hypocrites, sure. But unless you oppose them all, not all wars are the same.