Frank Rich on the National Circus: Obama Strikes Out on Syria

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Photo: Pool/2013 Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Obama makes a plea for action on Syria, and Bill de Blasio triumphs as the anti-Bloomberg.

President Obama reiterated his case for a U.S.-led strike in Syria last night, asking Congress to postpone voting on military intervention while the administration pursues a diplomatic solution. It appears unlikely that the House will approve the use of force. Did Obama really think his speech would swing votes? Or was there another aim?
The last time many of last night’s viewers tuned into President Obama en masse, he was imploring the nation in much the same terms and tone to join him in stopping the grotesque slaughter of innocent children. On that occasion — Newtown — many Americans were in grief and, according to polls, on his side. But we saw the results from his pitch for new gun-control legislation: zero. So let’s at least hope that he didn’t really think he would swing votes with last night’s mishmash of an address. The notion that it (or any speech) would bring around a citizenry and a Congress that are both overwhelmingly opposed to intervention in Syria’s civil war is preposterous — though no more preposterous than anything else that has happened over the past week. And Obama’s brief speech was nothing if not of a piece with what came before. He started with a call for military action, then veered into a prayer for diplomacy before trailing off into an inchoate “stay tuned” denouement. I guess this proves that if you mate a hawk with a dove, you end up with the rhetorical equivalent of turducken. I’d like to believe there was some other aim, but what could it have been? A humanitarian preemption of ABC’s The Bachelor? This address should have been put on hold by the White House the moment the attack was put on hold because the urgency of the appeal for force had evaporated. Now, if the Hail Putin Pass proves a Russian-Syrian bluff or some other form of mirage, the president can’t give the same speech again, minus the diplomacy part. One prime-time strike to sell the country on air strikes, and you’re out.

Obama mentioned the specter of Iraq and Afghanistan several times during his speech, and his entire approach — seeking explicit congressional approval and guaranteeing "no boots on the ground" — seems to reflect his wariness of those wars. Of course, public opposition to the Syria strike is also colored by the country's experiences over the past ten years. Are we right to see Iraq and Afghanistan in Syria? Or have all of us — Obama included — overlearned their lessons?
As someone who was so riveted and outraged by the Bush administration’s successful propaganda campaign to sell the Iraq War that I wrote a book deconstructing it, I am here to say that there are many differences between the run-up to that disastrous national misadventure and what’s going on now. Obama has been clear about these distinctions — not just last night but all week. He has assiduously pointed out that he “could not honestly claim” that Syria represents an “imminent threat” to America, and much to his credit last night he did not evoke 9/11 on the eve of its anniversary. The evidence of Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities and his (repeated) use of chemical weapons has not been seriously challenged by anyone and is far more persuasive than Colin Powell’s notorious display of show-and-tell props before the U.N. Nor has Obama called for regime change, the deployment of troops, or the magical implantation of democracy in Damascus. Indeed, in place of the Bush doctrine, we have another example of what’s emerged as the Obama doctrine. The president’s pitch for military action in Syria is consistent with the tactical and moral esthetics he has embraced in drone warfare: the notion that we can have “targeted” (narrow, limited, calibrated, whatever) or (as John Kerry put it) “unbelievably small” air strikes that will take out the bad guys and their weapons with no Middle East blowback, no American casualties, and no loss of civilian life. Until there is some or all of the above.

Still, there is one real parallel between recent events and the run-up to Iraq that deserves careful attention: the attempts of the administration and its hawkish fellow travelers, sometimes with press enablement, to oversell the Syrian opposition as a “moderate” force plausibly able to take on the murderous dictator. We learned last week that a Wall Street Journal op-ed downplaying the role of Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists among the Syrian freedom fighters was in fact written not by an independent authority but by a contract worker for a Syrian rebel support group. Yet that op-ed had been cited by both Kerry and John McCain as testimony to the presence of a sizable moderate rebel contingent that can serve as America’s proxy in the civil war. Their parroting of a planted opinion piece of murky provenance is exactly the kind of collusion between policy-makers and propagandists that went on when Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress fed a gullible American press fantasies of a good-to-go moderate claque ready to take charge as soon as we knocked out Saddam. This time, some (though not all) of the press is more vigilant: Reuters reported this week that “Kerry's public assertions that moderate Syrian opposition groups are growing in influence” are “at odds” with widespread intelligence showing that “Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.” The Times has fleshed that out with horrific on-the-ground accounts of atrocities committed by some of those elements. Another parallel with Iraq that must be greeted with alarm is the return to cable television of Wolfowitz, Bremer, Lieberman, and all of the other authors of the Iraqi fiasco. Surely we’ve learned by now that their “wisdom” is bankrupt, and so is that of those pundit cheerleaders who egged them on a decade ago. (Anyone needing a refresher course on that journalistic rogue’s gallery should start by reading Andrew Bacevich’s just-published Breach of Trust.) We should instead listen to the skeptics on Iraq back then, whether analysts like William Polk or the now-retired general Anthony Zinni, who has noted of limited military action that “you can’t get a little bit pregnant.”  

Do you think that echoes of Iraq and Iraq-Afghanistan war weariness are mainly responsible for the public rejecting a potential strike on Syria?
That’s not the whole story. I think Obama and his fellow interventionists have failed to make the sale or even make it clear what they are selling. Americans have not been persuaded that a strike will rectify the problem of Assad’s butchery in general or chemical weapons in particular. They know that when the president uses the word degrade as he did last night to describe what we would do to Assad’s capabilities — it is political weasel language that guarantees nothing. Since it’s been widely reported that we don’t know where many of the chemical-weapons sites are — and Assad is moving them around anyway — we also know that he could deploy the weapons again after our “limited” strike is over. And there have been no answers to such obvious questions as: What do we do if there is retaliation? What is the endgame? What is success? What happens if we break Syria and we own it? Another impediment to the administration’s case is the sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness of too many of those who are arguing for intervention. Polls show that most Americans believe that chemical weapons are horrific and that the evidence that Assad used them to murder countless civilians, children, and adults is beyond doubt. So we don’t have to be lectured to condescendingly as if we don’t get it. Yet too many politicians and pundits who favor intervention imply that to be against intervention in Syria is to be a moral pygmy who turns a blind eye to the slaughter of children. (Samantha Power, the most articulate advocate for administration policy, is the rare exception who has avoided this hectoring tone.) In truth, many of those opposed to intervention are not blind to the video of dead children but are fearful that the inconclusive dropping of a few missiles into a hornet’s nest will set off more slaughter, not less. Those writing treacly op-ed pieces supporting intervention should note that the more they have relied on emotional appeals and berate the public for being passive witnesses to war crimes, the more public support for military action in Syria has declined.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio triumphed in yesterday's Democratic mayoral primary after a campaign in which he cast himself as a progressive break from the Bloomberg years. Bloomberg, however, is hardly a universally reviled figure. (Exit polls showed Democrats evenly split on their view of his job performance.) Why did De Blasio prove such a formidable candidate?
Without re-litigating the Bloomberg mayoralty here, I think we can say that many are tired of the entitled New York stratum he symbolizes. The fact that all three newspapers endorsed his presumed heir apparent, Christine Quinn, and that she came in a distant third with only 15 percent of the vote testifies not only to the decline of the clout of newspapers and their omniscient editorial pages but to a larger distrust of the Establishment that has some parallels to the national rejection of received Washington wisdom on Syria. Meanwhile, enquiring minds want to know: Who are the 5 percent who voted for Anthony Weiner?