Care about presidential power? Stay out of quagmires.

Jonathan Bernstein nails it: the biggest danger to Obama’s credibility and future power is a *disastrous war.*

It was posted ages (a day) ago, but amidst all the double-bank-shot, speculative gaming of the political situation regarding Syria, I think this simple, strong insight from Jonathan Bernstein is well worth noting:

[T]here’s one permutation that absolutely, no question about it, would destroy the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency is: a disastrous war. Ask Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush. Or Harry Truman. Unending, seemingly pointless wars are the one sure way to ruin a presidency.

Now, I’m not saying that’s in the cards; in fact, I don’t think it is. I’m just saying: that’s the kind of thing that really does matter a lot to presidencies. And if you do believe that the administration is going down a path that winds up there, or a path that has a high risk of winding up there, then you should be very worried about the health of this presidency.

If not? None of the other permutations here are anywhere close to that kind of threat to the Obama presidency. Presidents lose key votes which are then mostly forgotten all the time. They pursue policies which poll badly, but are then mostly forgotten, all the time. There are important things to say about all of that, because “mostly” isn’t completely. But the first thing to get right when considering the effects of Syria policy on the rest of the Obama presidency is that the scale of a Vietnam or an Iraq (or a Korea, for that matter) overwhelms everything else we might talk about.

When it comes to Syria commentary, there are plenty of foxes tearing each other to pieces. But Bernstein has recalled us to a crucial piece of hedgehog wisdom. Big, endlessly escalating, unwinnable wars not only kill people (something Serious People not supposed to think about). More to the pundit’s point, they kill presidencies.


Why should you support Obama on Syria?

Because you’d rather have the President of the United States negotiate from strength than from weakness.

Most sentences containing the word “credibility” are nonsense. But the following, I submit, is not nonsense.

1. Threats are a tool of diplomacy.
2. The U.S. had reason to want the Assad gang not to use chemical weapons.
3. Barack Obama issued a threat: the use of chemical weapons would bring consequences in its train.
4. A party that makes threats and does not follow through when the announced trigger event happens is less convincing in making future threats. That’s a cost.
5. Therefore the fact that a threat was made constitutes an independent reason to carry it out. In that regard, a threat has much in common with a promise. You want your threats, like your promises, to be “credible”: i.e., worthy of belief.
6. The fact that backing down from a threat is costly is always an argument against making the threat in the first place. But it need not be a clinching argument.
7. Similarly, the fact that backing down is costly is always an argument for following through: again, clinching or not depending on other circumstances.
8. Ergo, you might want to back Obama’s play even if you thought that the immediate effects of an attack were likely to be, on balance, unfavorable rather than favorable. Or you might not.

The above is about actually making an attack on Syria. But there’s also a second-order question here. You and I and the Congress don’t get to decide about an attack. We get to decide whether to authorize the President to make an attack.* With that authorization in hand, he might be able to negotiate a better deal than he could without such an authorization in hand. So you could reasonably back Obama’s play even if you thought that an actual attack was a bad idea, in the hopes of getting the benefits of the authorization without an actual attack.

The fact that the Russians are now offering to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons might or might not be a head-fake. But I submit that it’s clearly the product of Obama’s threat to go to war. If a genuine offer is on the table, I hope that the Administration grabs it. But if the Russians and Syrians know that Obama can’t attack, that offer is likely to disappear.

And yes, as my dovish friends will no doubt remind me, I reasoned in just the same manner about authorizing GWB and his cronies to attack Iraq. And yes, we know now that they were never negotiating in good faith, being committed to war from the git-go. And yes, we now know that they were lying about the underlying facts. I have no reason to think that any such things are true about the current President or the people around him. Given a choice between believing Barack Obama and John Kerry on the one hand or believing Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Rush Limbaugh, and Pam Geller on the other, I’m not likely to hesitate for very long.

For GWB and Cheney, war with Iraq looked like a huge partisan advantage, which is mostly what they cared about. Politically, I can see only risks and no gains for Obama in dropping bombs in Syria. So, if I were in the Congress, I would vote for an authorization to use force while hoping (and telling the President’s people I was hoping) that it would never need to be acted on.

Footnote If Obama manages to bluff the Syrians out of their chemical weapons, will we hear apologies from the critics on the left and right who have been talking about “amateur hour”?

Just asking.

Update Some of the commentary suggests that this sentence wasn’t clear. I did not intend to assert  that the President has the power to attack without authorization. (There’s apparently a controversy on this point, though I would have thought the War Powers Act made it clear that he didn’t, absent exigent circumstances.) I meant simply that the Congress cannot order the President to attack, even by declaring war.  The choice still remains in the President’s hands. This is unlike the situation when the Congress appropriates money, which the President is then obliged to spend.  So there’s no contradiction between voting to authorize force and hoping that force will not be used.

Second update And no, the fact that random positive reinforcement yields hard-to-break habits does not mean that sporadic punishment works better than consistent punishment. Reward and punishment are not symmetric, and bluffing is a bad habit in parents and diplomats alike.

Syria and the lessons of Iraq

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq: no to a war in Syria.

Apparently, the Obama administration is set to send weapons to the Syrian rebels. The New York Times article reporting that implies that this may be too little, too late if our plan is to prevent a military victory by Assad. To do that, we’d have to take out lots of Syria’s airstrips.

All this is excellent instrumental reasoning, but it’s time to contest the premise: since when has it become American policy to topple Assad, whatever the cost and consequences? Washington pundits, always more militarist than the American people, have been lamenting that the lessons of Iraq have made the Obama administration “cautious” or “loath to intervene”–as if reluctance to militarily intervene in a large and well-armed country, caution in trying to topple a dictator whose fall would produce a country consumed by deadly sectarian hatreds (partly ancient and largely new, but who cares?), were a bad thing.

David Bromwich’s article in the latest New York Review of Books, where he takes the role of what Mark Danner has called an “empiricist of the word,” provides an excellent corrective to the creeping insinuation that intervention is in the cards and that those who propose staying out must somehow justify that. Read it all, as they say, but here are some highlights: Bill Keller, who got Iraq so horribly wrong, is now asking us to trust him that Syria is different, but can’t really say why (after reading Keller’s argument, I think Bromwich is quite right.). Keller is determined that his past “error of judgment” not leave him “gun-shy,” but while he worries about his mojo, I care more about the people at the other end of his vicarious gun. A recent New York Times article “White House Sticks to Cautious Path on Syria” already is slanted, as Bromwich notes, in the very headline (slightly revised in the online version without changing its substance): why would a lack of change in policy count as news unless we’re assuming that intervention is, or ought to be, the default assumption? By the way, Mark Landler, who co-wrote that article as well as what Bromwich shows to be an over-hyped article about chemical weapons, also co-wrote the latest article approvingly citing “[s]ome senior State Department officials” who  “have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria.” The man has at the very least a bias; at most, an agenda.

About those chemical weapons, by the way: Even stipulating that Assad has used them, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him, I deny that this gives the U.S. good reason to intervene. The bright-line taboo on using nuclear weapons is far more dubious when applied to chemical weapons, whose ability to kill and sicken horribly in a limited area is not qualitatively greater, and often less, than the ability of awful contemporary conventional weapons to kill and maim. President Obama was foolish enough to make chemical weapons a “red line”—as we now know, as an off-the-cuff remark that he hadn’t thought out—but neither America nor Syria deserves to pay the price for his gaffe, no matter what the White House thinks.

I realize that the Syrian civil war is horrible. Tens of thousands (perhaps more) have been killed; millions have fled. Assad is a vicious dictator and he does not plan to change. But the pundits eager for intervention have not explained an alternative better than this: another war. For reasons those State Department hawks have explained, this war would start with our bombing airstrips. I submit it would progress, given the need to protect our aircraft against surface attack, to our bombing all kinds of “strategic” targets, killing thousands of civilians (as in Iraq). We would quite likely send ground troops who would instantly become the targets of die-hard Alawites, not to mention Hezbollah. In the best case, and whether or not we sent troops, we would eventually hand over the country to a motley coalition of well-organized Salafis and poorly-organized moderates. Further civil war would almost follow—with no likely end to the killing, nor the flow of refugees.

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq. Shame on those who are so determined to deny that they are lessons that they would rather repeat them. We should stay out.