Obama's Syria Subtext: I Am Not George W. Bush

The president refuses to be rushed on military intervention, saying the U.S. needs a clearer intelligence picture it can confidently take to the international community.
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Larry Downing/Reuters

For all the talk of red lines when it comes to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, President Obama's remarks on the war-torn nation at a White House news conference Tuesday served as a reminder that the former senator from Illinois was one of the staunchest opponents of military action in Iraq and ran for office in 2008 on the platform that the war, launched based on faulty intelligence, was a mistake.

Obama was against a rush to war in Iraq 2002 and 2003, and he's taking a similarly cautious approach in the complex environment of the Syrian conflict. In this, he's completely in tune with the American public, according to a New York Times/CBS News survey released Tuesday. It found that "majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria right now," with 62 percent of the public agreeing that "the United States has no responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and antigovernment groups."

And to the extent that people are on board with U.S. military action, they back a de minimis version of intervention that's become increasingly controversial among civil liberties advocates: 70 percent of those polled supported drone strikes against terrorists.

"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don't have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," Obama said Tuesday in response to a question from Fox News. "And when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts."

"That's what the American people would expect," he continued. "And if we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do. There may be objections even among some people in the region who are sympathetic with the opposition if we take action. So, you know, it's important for us to do this in a prudent way."

In short, no rash interventions, based on faulty or incomplete intelligence, and conducted without the support of the international community. No matter what the hawks on the right are demanding.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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