The Coalition of Mutual Contempt That's Urging War in Syria

President Obama, the Iraq hawks, and the inevitable dysfunction of any intervention they wage together


The editors at National Review are again endorsing a war of choice against an ethnically divided dictatorship in a region where their magazine's track record anticipating geopolitical events over the last decade does not inspire confidence. Aside from NR's failure to learn anything from the disastrous Iraq War, the most striking thing about the editorial is its contempt for President Obama. The people behind it want you to know that they regard Obama's behavior on Syria so far to be that of an analytically confused, irresolute buffoon who even now "is asking Congress to choose between unpalatable options." Yet they're still urging Congress to entrust to him the prosecution of a war!

Obama is meanwhile finding that the bulk of the support he has for intervening in Syria comes from the same people who were behind what he famously called a dumb war.

"Now let me be clear -- I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him," Obama said in 2002. "But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history."

Now that Obama favors war against a petty Baathist dictator who developed and used chemical weapons, it is no surprise that the neoconservatives are with him -- which isn't to say that they'll remain an ally no matter how things go in Syria.

As Andrew Sullivan puts it:

The administration is losing this argument, and looks likely to lose the Congress. There are four times as many anti-war votes right now as pro-war ones in the House. The public remains opposed. Only neocons are backing the president forcefully, if he assents to their full-war agenda. The minute he doesn’t launch a full-scale war, they will abandon him. That’s already a horrible reminder that if the president decides to risk his entire second term on this quixotic act of neocon symbolism, he will be very alone very fast, with no country and no Congress behind him and not even the Brits offering some fig leaf of international support. 

In Jim Manzi's dissent from National Review's pro-war editorial, he mentions the unpopularity of intervention. "While we should not want war by plebiscite, this last point is important," he argues. "In movies, dictators and their hive societies are often portrayed as almost invincible war machines. In the real world, free societies since the time of the democracy in Athens have done pretty well for themselves in wars. Partly, this is because the support of the society prior to starting a war leads to sustained support in the face of inevitable setbacks." 

Obama won't just lack the support of the American people if he intervenes in Syria, he is vanishingly unlikely to hold together the small coalition that supports intervention when the inevitable setbacks start to happen. National Review's editors will try to evade responsibility for their poor judgment by arguing that intervention would've worked if only Obama had done it differently. Neoconservatives will keep pushing for greater and greater escalation. Obama can retain their support by going along with their grand designs, or he can retain the support of those backing the most limited of interventions. 

He cannot keep both groups happy. And John Boehner and Eric Cantor certainly aren't going to stand behind him.

Has so dysfunctional a coalition ever attempted to go to war together before? The factions of Syria hawks have disdain for one another, dramatically different goals, and huge political incentives to turn on one another as soon as anything goes wrong given the unpopularity of intervention among Americans. It would be irresponsible for any president to go to war with such shaky domestic support.