7 Reasons Why the Public Is Right to Mistrust Obama on Syria

A vindication of public opinion
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In the anti-war column that Peggy Noonan published in the Wall Street Journal, she notices a new gulf between Washington's interventionist elite and the people:

The Syria debate isn't, really, a struggle between libertarians and neoconservatives, or left and right, or Democrats and Republicans. That's not its shape. It looks more like a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington's central governing assumptions.

I've been thinking of the "wise men," the foreign policy mandarins of the 1950s and '60s, who so often and frustratingly counseled moderation, while a more passionate public, on right and left, was looking for action. "Ban the Bomb!" "Get Castro Out of Cuba." In the Syria argument, the moderating influence is the public, which doesn't seem to have even basic confidence in Washington's higher wisdom.

Just so.

The public lacks basic confidence in Washington's foreign-policy judgment, and that skepticism is justified. Let us consider just some of the reasons that is so:

1. Team Obama acknowledged that the Iraq catastrophe is part of why Americans are wary of another war, and promised Syria isn't going to be the same. It's as if they don't understand why Iraq makes people wary. What Iraq taught Americans -- what Vietnam taught before that -- is that Washington foreign-policy planners cannot accurately say beforehand just how long a war will last, how much it will cost, or how many Americans it might ultimately kill, even though many of them earnestly believe that their prognostication is accurate.

If Obama Administration officials had learned the right lessons from Iraq, they'd realize that what they ought to understand and explain is why intervention in Syria would be worthwhile for the U.S. even though its aftermath is inherently unpredictable. Instead they're asking us to believe their assurances about how limited the conflict will be, even though many of them got Iraq wrong on that same metric. They talk about intervention in Syria as if they know just what will happen. That's part of why they can't be trusted: their delusions of control.

2. The Obama Administration won't have made a full case for war until it explains how it expects Syria, Iran, Russia, and other countries to respond to an American strike, leveling with the American people about the possibility of retaliation and proving that they have a prudent plan prepared in case it happens.

3. The Obama Administration avows that there won't be any American boots on the ground in Syria. But that's a promise that its officials don't necessarily intend to keep, as John Kerry unintentionally acknowledged when questioned on the matter.

4. The military thinks this is a bad idea.

5. President Obama has broken so many promises in the course of campaigning and governing that there's no reason to trust his word when he makes pledges about anything. He long ago proved he'll say what he thinks he needs to say to get what he wants. The wisdom of striking Syria should be judged independent of his assurances.

6. Obama's ill-advised "red line" comments, the wrongheaded way that the political press casts heads of state not getting what they want as "humiliation," and the influential lobby pushing for war all give U.S. leaders incentives for intervention that have nothing to do with what's best for the country.

7. Nothing about the way Team Obama has handled events in Syria so far inspires confidence that they know what they're doing or are likely to take the right course.

All these reasons help to explain why American citizens are against entrusting the Obama Administration with the power to wage war in Syria, and why the House of Representatives so far appears to be against voting Obama that power.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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