With Syria, Barack Obama is caught in the worst dilemma of his presidency – one that recent history can help us to understand and one that emerges from three profound convictions:
The first is Obama’s determination not to allow America to become involved in another devastating foreign venture, with “boots on the ground,” as in Vietnam and Iraq.
The second is his almost religious belief that it is morally imperative for America to act against a regime willing to use chemical weapons against its own people.
And the third is his commitment to constitutional process.
Each of these convictions makes sense, and all were prominent parts of his speech to the nation Tuesday night. The problem is that, at times, they run contrary to one another.
For good reasons, Obama is adamant that military intervention in another foreign country would prove disastrous. Nothing has done more to tarnish America’s standing in the world than its intervention in Vietnam’s civil war and its decision to invade Iraq. The country need not have gone that route.
While John F. Kennedy increased the American presence in Vietnam from 800 to 15,000 troops, there is good reason to believe he planned to withdraw from that country after he won re-election in 1964. Buoyed by his victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and encouraged by the world’s reaction to his initiatives for peace with the Soviet Union in his June 1963 American University speech, Kennedy had already turned down a request for a dramatic increase in American forces in Vietnam. He spent much of his last three months touring the country to talk about peace.
But Lyndon Johnson possessed neither the experience nor the confidence of Kennedy. Terrified that he would lose political support for his Great Society at home if he “lost” a war to communists, he stealthily increased America’s commitment to Vietnam, eventually raising our troop total to 540,000, a 3,600 percent increase over the number Kennedy had authorized. From My Lai to the helicopter rescue of Americans from the U.S. Embassy in 1974, Vietnam became a source of shame, not pride.
Iraq became the same. Despite President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” boast from a U.S. aircraft carrier, it quickly became clear America didn’t possess the strategy, the troops or the support from the Iraqi people to bring democracy to that country. Abu Ghraib, like My Lai, became a symbol of American cruelty.
So for every good reason of history – and experience – Obama has made avoiding involvement in such wars a top priority.
But of equal priority is the importance of the United States’ standing fast in support of morality and decency in the world. We shamed ourselves by not responding to our then-ally Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Iraq. We repeated the error by our inaction when the Rwandan genocide occurred.
Obama’s declaration that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” for America, precipitating a strong response, was not a careless, impromptu slip of the tongue. Whatever else one might say about him, few can accuse Obama of lacking discipline. Everything he does is carefully thought out.
Then there is his commitment to due process, reflected in his decision to ask Congress for approval of this military action. Obama has staked his career on doing things the right way, following the rules. And the Constitution says that waging war, even on a limited, deliberative basis, requires consent by the Congress.
So what does he do with these competing convictions? The proposal he has made attempts to thread the needle. Specifically, it outlaws “boots on the ground.” But it also recognizes – and affirms – America’s responsibility not to remain quiet when crimes against humanity are committed.
The country failed to act with Nazi Germany during the 1930s, with Iraq during the 1980s and with Rwanda in the 1990s. From Obama’s perspective, there is really no choice but to act on behalf of international law and our common humanity.
Now, there has emerged the slight possibility that a diplomatic solution is possible with Syria, under a United Nations mandate, turning over its chemical weapons to international control. Will this work? It’s too early to tell.
But if it does not, do we have a choice other than to act? In light of what history has taught us, and if we are to be true to our moral values, we need to proceed.
William H. Chafe teaches history at Duke University and is past president of the Organization of American Historians.