The comparisons between the U.S.’s decision to invade Iraq a decade ago and the current consideration of an American-led military strike in Syria were perhaps inevitable.
And the situations certainly have a few similarities: a secretary of state publicly trumpeting the administration’s case (then Colin Powell, now John Kerry), skepticism from traditional allies (then France, now Britain) and worries about the U.S. repeating a past failure (then Vietnam, now Iraq).
But quite simply, Syria in 2013 is not Iraq in 2003. And here’s why:
1. Obama knows the lessons of Iraq as well as anyone
Barack Obama didn’t just object to the United States’ invasion of Iraq 10 years ago; his anti-war stance was one of the defining features of his 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois and then his 2008 presidential run. If the United States didn’t enter Iraq, there’s a good chance that Barack Obama would not have been elected president, certainly not as early as 2008.
Obama isn’t hinting he won’t repeat what happened in Iraq, but saying so quite directly. He has repeatedly, pointedly said this is a “limited” action against Syria, not some kind of longer war. And it’s not as if the White House is unaware of the polls showing Americans have dubious feelings toward any kind of intervention in Syria or the wariness of members of Congress. Obama couldn’t simply drag America into another long war if he wanted. And he doesn’t.
“We can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about,” he told PBS last week.
2. Zero ground troops
The president envisions ZERO ground troops in Syria. In October 2007, 166,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq. This difference can’t be stated enough. More than 4,440 U.S. troops died in Iraq, more than 32,000 sustained injuries. The U.S. spent more than $3 trillion fighting the war there. Obama is not proposing anything like this kind of scale, but instead what might amount to a few days of military strikes.
3. Obama and his team have not been thinking about invading Syria since before they took office
Ten years ago, some of the president’s top advisers (Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton in particular) had a long history of favoring an invasion of Iraq. The decision by President Bush reflected the influence of those figures. This is not true of the Obama administration, which is full of people more skeptical of U.S. interventions abroad.
John Kerry first became famous as anti-Vietnam War activist. Chuck Hagel, Obama’s defense secretary, has been one of the most vocal politicians in Washington about the mistake of invading Iraq and his aversion to entering similar kinds of conflicts.
Obama’s presidency has been one about winding down wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) not starting them.
4. There is a policy problem in Syria
In 2003, Iraq was not in the midst of a civil war that resulted in 100,000 deaths, and there was little reason to deploy thousands of U.S. troops there so soon after September 11. The Obama administration has not inserted itself into Syria without cause.
The president has been debating for two years if and how the U.S. should intervene. He has at times been criticized for being too cautious, even by fellow Democrats. The U.S. has been reluctant to declare that Syria used chemical weapons, a finding the British, French and Israelis made much earlier this year.
5. Obama is not George W. Bush
The chief critique of George W. Bush’s foreign policy is that he was too aggressive, particularly in going to war with Iraq. “The Obama Doctrine,” if there is one, is that the U.S. should intervene internationally only as a last resort, with as few troops as possible and with traditional allies and also allied countries in whatever region the U.S. is considering military action.
Obama has shown himself as president to be calculated and deliberate. He chose to involve Congress in the decision-making progress in Syria, even as some legal experts argue he could have authorized and conducted a limited strike without congressional approval.
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