WASHINGTON — In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt told his speechwriter Sam Rosenman, “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead — and to find no one there.”
For President Barack Obama to have arrived at this place is uncomfortable but not unprecedented. Democratic majorities generally do not clamor for the application of violence in global affairs. Usually it is a president who sees a strategic problem requiring the use of force and must persuade his fellow citizens.
During his news conference following the G20 summit in Russia, Obama’s reference to the historical example of FDR — trying to convince a reluctant nation to help the British — was revealing. Roosevelt won the approval of historians by challenging, even circumventing, American resistance to war. His foreign policy leadership consisted of opposing a shortsighted democratic consensus.
Obama is hardly the first peace candidate to push the nation toward conflict. Woodrow Wilson campaigned in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” During the 1940 election, Roosevelt was still promising, “Your sons will not go to war.” Yet both men skillfully made the transition to wartime leadership.
During his news conference, Obama affirmed that he “was elected to end wars, not start them.” He then proceeded to show how unsuited his skills and strategies are to the task of beginning an armed conflict. His goal? To maintain an “international norm.” His current options? Not “appetizing.” His future methods? “Limited.” The level of opposition? “You know, our polling operations are pretty good.” His main argument? “I think that I have a well-deserved reputation for taking very seriously and soberly the idea of military engagement.”
So far, the president’s case for attacking Syria can be summarized as follows: Precisely because Obama has been hesitant and conflicted about intervention for two years, Americans should trust that the intervention he now proposes is unavoidable. His very ambivalence is the source of his credibility. And a war-weary nation can be assured that Obama has chosen minimal objectives and will employ minimal force — a strike Secretary of State John Kerry calls “unbelievably small.”
The questions arising from Congress and the public have been predictable. If the methods are so minimal, will they actually accomplish anything except risking retaliation? If the president is so ambivalent, why should people rally to his cause, particularly to the legal abstraction of enforcing a “norm”?
Obama’s approach represents a misunderstanding of wartime leadership. It is not possible for a president to justify the use of force by downplaying it. Americans support armed conflict when the stakes are highest, not when the costs are lowest. It is a tribute to their moral seriousness. There is no way for a president to accommodate American war weariness by setting “unbelievably small” goals; he must overcome it by explaining urgent, unavoidable national purposes. If Obama can’t define those purposes in Syria, his wartime leadership will not succeed.
He has a strong moral and strategic case to make. Bashar Assad is the author of poison gas attacks against children — the latest in a series of mass atrocities aimed at civilians. Tolerance for such butchery would be a source of historical shame and an invitation to future crimes. But this moral stand is located within a broader strategic argument. A dangerous alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, with outside support from Russia, is seeking dominance in a region essential to American interests. It is important to prevent their victory in the Syrian civil war and to avoid the destabilization of key allies. And it is necessary to make clear that Iran’s proxy, the Assad regime, cannot use weapons of mass destruction with impunity. For Congress to undercut Obama in his confrontation with Damascus would invite future miscalculations in Tehran.
The Obama administration already has elements of a regional strategy in place. It has imposed sanctions on the Assad regime and provided considerable aid to threatened neighbors. It is committed to training selected rebels. And it is hinting that strikes against Syrian targets may actually be larger than Kerry describes. “By degrading Assad’s capacity to deliver chemical weapons,” U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power recently argued, “we will also degrade his ability to strike at civilian populations by conventional means.” This sounds a lot like attacks on air bases, runways, aircraft and rocket launchers.
It may be difficult, at this late date, to assemble these elements into a case that persuades Congress. But it is not even possible without the end of ambivalence.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.