Frank Rich on the National Circus: Obama Has Gotten Us Into a Quagmire

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Islamist rebels from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) an extremist Al-Qaeda Linked group in an area close to the front line, where heavy clashes (day before the battle lasted 24hours) between the rebels and pro-government troops have been taking place on the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo, on July 4, 2013.
ISIS rebels on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo, on July 4, 2013.Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Corbis

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: The U.S. launches air strikes in Syria, hundreds of thousands march to protest climate-change inaction, and the race for control of the Senate enters its final stretch.

Two weeks ago, President Obama addressed the nation on his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, saying, “I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Yesterday, the U.S. launched air strikes in Syria, targeting not only ISIS but the less-known terror network Khorasan. Obama insists that he has ruled out deploying combat troops to the region, but a growing chorus, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair, has said they could be necessary. Could we be entering into another quagmire?
Yes. And no one knows this better than President Obama, whose political rise was tied to his opposition to “dumb wars” and who is nothing if not honest in warning that our new engagement in Iraq and Syria will last for an unspecified number of years, past his presidency. His open-ended, inchoate description of this war’s future is the very definition of a quagmire — and the very antithesis of an exit strategy. We are sinking into the quicksand even as we speak.

All summer the bipartisan Washington consensus had it that the president had to talk tougher, be “decisive,” exercise “leadership,” etc. etc. Well, now that that wish has come true, what have been the results? Even as America was poised to hit Syria this week, the Times reported that six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq had failed to dent ISIS there. Now that we’re bombing Syria, no one really knows exactly what is happening in the fog of war — we are still in the hazy, wishful thinking “coalition of the willing”/ “shock and awe” phase of that campaign. Nor do we know what this campaign will accomplish beyond a whack-a-mole obliteration of small, fast-scattering terrorist groups like Khorasan (some 100 members as opposed to the 20,000-30,000 the CIA estimates for ISIS) — or, quite possibly, the shoring up of the criminal Assad regime that only yesterday we wanted to take out. And already the same Establishment — not just generals and Tony Blair — that begged all summer for more “leadership” from Obama is implicitly asking for ground troops. Typical is Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who could be found this morning on Morning Joe saying that we are fighting with “one arm tied behind our back.”

In truth, we already have boots on the ground in the form of “special forces” and “advisers.” The moment they start returning to America in body bags, or are seen being slaughtered in ISIS videos, is the moment when the recent polling uptick in support for this war will evaporate. That support is an inch deep, and Congress knows it, which is why members of both parties fled Washington for the campaign trail last week rather than debate Obama’s war plan. As Paul Kane of The Washington Post pointed out, the Senate could not even fill up the scant allotted time (five hours) for debating the war, and “so at one point a senator devoted time to praising the Baltimore Orioles for their successful baseball season.” Next to this abdication of duty, Congress’s disastrous rush to authorize war in Iraq in 2002 looks like a wise and deliberate execution of checks-and-balances.

Almost everything that is happening now suggests this will end badly. We’ve failed to curb ISIS in Iraq because, for all the happy talk about its inclusive new government, Sunni Iraqis have yet to rally behind their new Shiite prime minister Haider al-Abadi any more enthusiastically than they did behind the despised Nouri al-Maliki. As for our expansion into Syria, even if we can find and train 5,000 Syrian “moderates” to fight the Islamic State, it will take a year to do so, according to our own government’s no doubt optimistic estimate. And they’ll still be outnumbered by ISIS forces by at least four-to-one. Nor do we know all the unintended consequences that will multiply throughout the region — as they have in every other American intervention in the Muslim world — with each passing month.

Fifty years after LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution greased the skids for Vietnam, history still remembers two Senators in Johnson’s own party who opposed it, Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening. Let it be noted that this time around prominent Senators from both parties are playing that gadfly role, including Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of New York to protest global inaction on climate change. Grim reports keep getting published. The president keeps talking about our responsibility to address climate change. And while he has pushed through carbon-cutting executive actions, it’s clear that the U.S. — to say nothing of China — has a long way to go. What is it going to take for the hopes of the climate marchers to be realized? 
As long as one of the two major American political parties aligns with the world’s No. 1 environmental offender, China, in refusing to address this crisis, nothing will happen. In the GOP, it’s not just a far-right fringe that is in denial about climate change but its Establishment. The Wall Street Journal covered the march by relegating it to its local New York section and countering it with a long essay titled “Climate Science Is Not Settled” by a former chief scientist at BP. Chris Christie pulled New Jersey out of a nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in defiance of his own legislature rather than risk offending the Koch Brothers and losing their bottomless Americans for Prosperity campaign cash should he run for president.

Perhaps it will take an environmental apocalypse to move the GOP on this issue, but then again, many thought that the surge in school shootings would move the party to end its intransigent opposition to gun control. This is going to be a long struggle, ultimately led by the same young Americans who have been forcing the Republicans to retreat on cultural issues like same-sex marriage.

The midterm elections are a little more than a month away, and — according to polling models at 538, the Times, the Washington Post, and Huffington Post — the GOP stands a better than even chance of taking control of the Senate. GOP challengers have so far managed to avoid any “Todd Akin moments,” and red state Democrats are saddled with a president who is intensely unpopular among their constituents. Is this thing over?
Given Obama’s low numbers, and all the other metrics charted by the Nate Silvers out there, I would have thought so. Yet some Republicans are revealing a bit of anxiety. Take Karl Rove. His August 27 Journal column carried the triumphalist headline “Countdown to Kicking Out Harry Reid.” Last week in that same space, he could be found worrying that “a GOP Senate majority is still in doubt.” There’s a touch of panic in his tone as he points out that Democrats are leading in fund-raising this year, and acknowledges that the “anti-women meme” is not so easily escaped by a party fielding candidates whose anti-choice extremism includes endorsing “personhood” amendments granting legal rights to embryos. Should Rove’s doubts prove justified, we can only hope that he will be spending election night at Fox News so we can be treated to an encore of his 2012 on-camera meltdown. That remains the most memorable bit of political theater so far this decade.