There are basically two ways a president can take America to war. The first model is World War II, Vietnam, or Iraq: You scare the public into believing that some evil regime or ideology, if left unchecked, will bring its murderous ways to our shores. And then you ask Americans to fight overseas so we don’t have to fight here at home. The second model is Kosovo or Libya: You say that something terrible is happening to other people, and America must stop it because we are a decent nation. But you don’t ask for the American people’s involvement or consent. You just do it, hopeful that because you’re not asking Americans to make any real sacrifice, they’ll acquiesce long enough for you to finish the job.
In his speech Tuesday night on Syria, President Obama—as is his tendency—tried to have it both ways. And it didn’t work. On one hand, he tried to argue that Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons could endanger Americans. If unpunished, he claimed, Assad’s actions might create a world in which “our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield” or Iran would be more emboldened to build a nuke that could threaten the United States. If we “stop children from being gassed to death” in Syria, he argued, we “make our own children safer over the long run.”
But Obama’s national security argument sounded like a Rube Goldberg-machine. Would Syria’s use of chemical weapons against defenseless civilians really increase the likelihood of an enemy using chemical weapons against American troops, who could respond with massive force? After all, Obama himself admitted that “the Assad regime”—chemical weapons and all—“does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military.” Likewise, in a half-sentence, Obama claimed that permitting Assad’s chemical weapons attack would embolden Iran to build a bomb, but he never bothered to explain why.
Obama’s national security argument felt forced. The emotional meat of his speech was entirely different: It was about the horrors of using chemical weapons against anyone. “View the videos of the attack,” he implored, before quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt as saying that America must act “when ideas and principles that we have cherished are challenged.” Presidents have taken America to war on this basis before. George H.W. Bush did it in Somalia; Bill Clinton did it in Bosnia and Kosovo; Obama did it in Libya. But they’ve done so on their own authority, cognizant that the best they could hope from Americans was quiet acquiescence. Generally, presidents don’t ask Congress to vote on humanitarian wars. When Congress finally voted on a measure authorizing Clinton to bomb Kosovo in April 1999—after he had been doing so for a month—the measure failed.
Politically, Obama could have gotten away with striking Syria for a couple of days without asking for congressional approval, assuming no Americans had died. But in seeking that approval, he took on a burden that purveyors of humanitarian war cannot sustain. Instead of settling for the public’s passive acceptance, he asked for an affirmative statement of support. There was little sign before last night’s speech that he would get it. There’s little sign now.
However Russia’s plan for securing Syria’s chemical weapons plays out, the lesson of the last few days is clear: Americans can be convinced to support wars, but only against enemies they believe threaten their own safety. They may look the other way while presidents wage wars to defend things like “international norms.” But whether idealistically or foolishly, Obama wouldn’t let them look the other way. Now he’s paying the price.