Starting an Unpopular War Still Won't Make Obama Better Off Politically

Yet journalists keep airing the idea that his presidency depends on it.
Reuters

Supposedly savvy political observers keep writing as if failing to intervene in Syria poses greater risks to President Obama than refraining from striking the country. Some articles go so far as to treat seriously the notion that, absent a strike, his presidency is over."With remarkably little to show for a week of intensive lobbying, the last bit of leverage that Democrats expect the White House to use is this: Barack Obama’s presidency depends on it," a Politico article notes.

It goes on:

Proof and peril of the chemical weapons attack haven’t convinced Congress -- at least not yet -- and the politics point to defeat. So Obama’s last best hope is to convince conflicted Democrats, even if it’s just implicit in private conversations, that they can’t be the ones who cripple his presidency and his ability to deliver the party’s priorities, according to Democrats on Capitol Hill and close to the White House.

This is not savvy political analysis -- it's the uncritical repetition of a highly dubious theory. The obvious truth is that intervening carries far more risks for Obama than not intervening, and it doesn't take much reflection to see the why:
  • Americans are overwhelmingly against intervention.
  • If Obama strikes and Syria retaliates in a way that sets back our strategic interests, kills Americans or innocents in an allied state, or touches off a wider regional war, he'll be blamed for sparking a catastrophic series of events. And he'll have little if any support to fall back on.
  • If Obama acts and it seems to make no difference to the Syrian regime, he will be called ineffectual and be pilloried for not doing more.
  • If a strike ordered by Obama is overzealous, or kills a lot of innocents, or results in a sustained bombing campaign or boots on the ground, he will be pilloried for breaking his commitment to limit his attack to something very minimal.
  • Even if Obama improbably carries off what he regards as a perfectly calibrated missile strike or bombing campaign, he would still be criticized by neoconservatives for not going far enough, and by paleocons, libertarians, and anti-war liberals for going too far. He has no significant base of support for striking.
  • Every dollar spent on Syria will be cited by deficit hawks as money that should've been spent here in the U.S. -- and a majority of Americans will agree.
  • Any misstep in Syria will be used as a cudgel by every one of his domestic political opponents to thwart him, and they will succeed, because the whole enterprise will remain something that the majority of Americans don't want.

The risks of intervention are numerous, and at least some of them are very likely. Political observers who write as if not intervening is the riskier bet can only credibly do so by implicitly adopting a time horizon that ends the minute Congress votes, and Obama either gets his way or does not get his way.

What happens after that?

If Obama loses the vote, it will seem, for a news cycle or three, that he has been damaged, because lots of shortsighted pundits will prattle on and on about the "unprecedented humiliation" of it all. And then, Syria will fade from the headlines. Something else will be the big story. There will be a debt-ceiling fight and midterm elections and debate about whether to give immigration reform another go. The media will start focusing on Edward Snowden's NSA revelations again, Obamacare will start to be implemented, and Politico will declare that some other matter could be a turning point in the Obama Administration.

No future is certain, but that is a far more likely future, if the Syria vote fails to pass, than America spending the next three years thinking that Obama's presidency definitively ended because he wasn't able to start a very unpopular war.

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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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