Apparently, the U.S. needs a war

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Obama said that many people were ‘war weary,’ and — without singling out the decision by Britain not to join in any attack — he added that ‘a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.'”[1] This “war weary” is a curious turn of phrase.

To say of a people, as Obama contemplates an attack on Syria, that they are “war weary” is to suggest first that war is a desirable condition, and second that weariness with war is an undesirable condition, that people should, like Teddy Roosevelt, be enthusiastic for war, that they “should welcome any war,” because “this country needs one.” Roosevelt’s desire for war, stated in 1897, preceding the Spanish-American War by about one year,[2] seems oblivious to a U.S. history of more or less continuous war. The war against the American Indians is thought (inaccurately) by many to have ended only in 1890.[3] The Civil War had ended with Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865.[4] Surely, even then, there had been enough war.

But for Barack Obama, war is indeed a desirable condition. We are out of Iraq, putatively the “wrong war,”[5] only because Iraq would not agree to immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops.[6] As for Afghanistan, putatively “the right war,”[7] Obama escalated it,[8] and is pulling out for no discernible reason other than that he said he would do so—the only thing that has been accomplished there is a whole lot of killing, including of many innocent civilians.[9] Our “enemy” seems no further from a reconquest than when Bush lost interest in Afghanistan and decided to invade Iraq.[10]

So now, it seems, we must have another war. These words should sound all too familiar:

The president said he was continuing to consult with Congress and allies in other countries, but said that any attack would not involve American troops on the ground in Syria.

“We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots on the ground approach,” Mr. Obama told reporters before meeting with Baltic leaders in the White House. He said he had “not made any decisions” about what actions the United States would take in Syria.[11]

Even the military seems less than gung-ho:

“There’s a broad naivete in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the run-up to the Iraq war, noting that many of his contemporaries are alarmed by the plan. . . .

“I can’t believe the president is even considering it,” said the officer, who like most officers interviewed for this story agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because military personnel are reluctant to criticize policymakers while military campaigns are being planned. “We have been fighting the last 10 years a counterinsurgency war. Syria has modern weaponry. We would have to retrain for a conventional war.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned in great detail about the risks and pitfalls of U.S. military intervention in Syria.

“As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that use of force will move us toward the intended outcome,” Dempsey wrote last month in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” . . .

The recently retired head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, said last month at a security conference that the United States has “no moral obligation to do the impossible” in Syria. “If Americans take ownership of this, this is going to be a full-throated, very, very serious war,” said Mattis, who as Centcom chief oversaw planning for a range of U.S. military responses in Syria. . . .

“What is the political end state we’re trying to achieve?” said a retired senior officer involved in Middle East operational planning who said his concerns are widely shared by active-duty military leaders. “I don’t know what it is. We say it’s not regime change. If it’s punishment, there are other ways to punish.” The former senior officer said that those who are expressing alarm at the risks inherent in the plan “are not being heard other than in a pro-forma manner.”[12]

Setting aside the morality of war, it isn’t even clear what a strike—or a war—would accomplish:

“If President Asad [sic] were to absorb the strikes and use chemical weapons again, this would be a significant blow to the United States’ credibility and it would be compelled to escalate the assault on Syria to achieve the original objectives,” [Marine Lt. Col. Gordon] Miller wrote in a commentary for the [Center for a New American Security].[13]

Yet that credibility seems exactly to be the rationale for an attack:

“When a president draws a red line, for better or worse, it’s policy,” [an Army lieutenant colonel] said, referring to Obama’s declaration last year about Syria’s potential use of chemical weapons. “It cannot appear to be scared or tepid. Remember, with respect to policy choices concerning Syria, we are discussing degrees of bad and worse.”[14]

Or to put it more bluntly,

It’s not about saving Syrian lives. It’s about Obama saving face.

This is how one Syrian, Abdullah Omar, describes the US proposal to carry out limited strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the wake of a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians last week.[15]

“Bad and worse” seems to be about right. Whether we think Obama should have been more aggressive towards Syria or not, having first drawn a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons,[16] his dithering since has not helped. Rather, one might suspect that it has created an opening for an al Qaeda-affiliate, the al Nusra Front.[17] Now we have a situation that seems highly unlikely to end well.

And going to war offers no clear way of making it better.

Update, August 31, 2013: The Obama administration is now arguing for “military intervention on the grounds that American credibility was at stake.”[18] That the U.S. has reached a condition where its credibility lies in coercion, rather than in moral suasion, is a profound statement on the depths to which the country has plunged.

  1. [1]Michael D. Shear, “Obama and Kerry Press Case for U.S. Action in Syria,” New York Times, August 30, 2013,
  2. [2]Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Dolphin ed., vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 755.
  3. [3]David Benfell, “United States history of war,” n.d.,
  4. [4]Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, concise 3rd ed., vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).
  5. [5]David E. Sanger, “Rivals Split on U.S. Power, but Ideas Defy Labels,” New York Times, October 22, 2008,
  6. [6]Tim Arango and Michael S. Schmidt, “Iraq Denies Legal Immunity to U.S. Troops After 2011,” New York Times, October 4, 2011,; David Martin, “Immunity for troops was Iraq deal breaker,” CBS News, October 21, 2011,
  7. [7]Robert Dreyfuss, “Hey Obama, Don’t Let Afghanistan Be Your Quagmire,” Alternet, January 6, 2009,
  8. [8]Tom Engelhardt, “State of Surge, Afghanistan,” TomDispatch, December 10, 2009,,_afghanistan/
  9. [9]Jonathan S. Landay, “Obama’s drone war kills ‘others,’ not just al Qaida leaders,” McClatchy, April 9, 2013,
  10. [10]Tom Engelhardt, “Debacle! How Two Wars in the Greater Middle East Revealed the Weakness of the Global Superpower,” TomDispatch, January 3, 2012,; Philip Ewing, “Soviet ghosts in Afghanistan,” DoD Buzz, March 21, 2012,
  11. [11]Shear, “Obama and Kerry Press Case for U.S. Action in Syria.”
  12. [12]Ernesto Londoño, “U.S. military officers have deep doubts about impact, wisdom of a U.S. strike on Syria,” Washington Post, August 29, 2013,
  13. [13]Londoño, “U.S. military officers have deep doubts about impact, wisdom of a U.S. strike on Syria.”
  14. [14]Londoño, “U.S. military officers have deep doubts about impact, wisdom of a U.S. strike on Syria.”
  15. [15]Tracey Shelton, “What do Syrians think of potential US strikes on their country?” Global Post, August 29, 2013,
  16. [16]Peter Baker, Mark Landler, David E. Sanger, Anne Barnard, “Off-the-Cuff Obama Line Put U.S. in Bind on Syria,” New York Times, May 4, 2013,
  17. [17]Ben Hubbard, “Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy,” New York Times, April 27, 2013,
  18. [18]Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon, “Support Slipping, U.S. Defends Plan for Syria Attack,” New York Times, August 30, 2013,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.