Skip to main content

Obama's Syria dilemma: Becoming the president he didn't like

By Julian Zelizer, CNN contributor
updated 6:34 AM EDT, Mon September 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama won support in the 2008 election with his criticism of the war in Iraq
  • Obama is not the first president to become involved in a difficult international conflict
  • How the operation in Syria unfolds will affect Obama's legacy in the White House

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- President Obama looked uncomfortable as he stood before the nation on Saturday, announcing that he would ask for a congressional resolution of support to use limited force in Syria.

Obama, who won the hearts and souls of many Americans in the 2008 election with his trenchant criticism of President George W. Bush's war in Iraq, now finds himself leading a controversial and ambiguous military operation that has little support, in Congress or abroad.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Asking Congress for a resolution of support is an important step in making this decision, but what will matter much more is how the operation unfolds.

In the best-case scenario, limited air strikes would achieve their intended goals and the president could bring the operation to an swift end, shifting his focus back to domestic debates. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as Obama with Libya in 2011, learned that in the modern era this outcome is possible.

In the worst-case scenario, the situation will deteriorate and overshadow anything else. The violence in Syria could intensify, forcing the United States to increase its presence and become embroiled in a deadly and costly war.

Obama is not the first president to become involved in an international conflict that forces him to make decisions that fundamentally contradict what he hoped to stand for.

Syria: Who wants what after chemical weapons horror

Key Republican reacts to Obama decision
Obama seeks military action in Syria
Obama: U.S. should take military action
President Obama presses Congress on Syria

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. troops into World War I after having won the admiration of progressive activists during his successful run as a peace candidate the previous year. World War I proved to be highly controversial. Wilson alienated progressives through his crackdown on anti-war movements and dismissal of civil liberties. The brutality of the war disillusioned many citizens and the rationale behind U.S. involvement always remained unclear.

The president's inability to persuade the Senate to ratify the peace treaty ended his term in failure.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson wanted to be the domestic president who finished the New Deal. Johnson initially took a hawkish stand on Vietnam, with the intention of insulating himself from right-wing attacks about being weak on national security and with the hope of keeping the U.S. out of a bigger war through firm action at the outset. He always feared suffering the fate of President Harry Truman, whose political strength plummeted after China fell to communism in 1949 and the United States became bogged down in a stalemate in Korea.

But Johnson's strategy didn't work. The Vietnam War continued to expand and gradually dwarfed Johnson's huge domestic accomplishments. He found himself bogged down in a quagmire, much worse than Truman.

Upon his election in 1976, Jimmy Carter promised to rebuild America's faith in government after Watergate and Vietnam. Carter promised to offer new approaches to domestic policy that avoided the militaristic record of his Cold War predecessors. He promoted human rights as a centerpiece of international policy and signed the Panama Canal treaties that he hoped would rebuild the image of the United States in the region. Carter also continued to try to ease strained relations with the Soviet Union, pushing for the ratification of the SALT II arms agreements.

But all of his efforts ended in November 1979 when Iranian revolutionaries took American hostages. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1980. Carter was forced to shift to the right by calling for increased troop presence in the Persian Gulf and higher defense spending among NATO allies. He disappointed Democratic supporters, while never winning the backing of opponents who believed that he was a failed president.

Most recently, George W. Bush found himself in a similar predicament. When Bush ran for office, evidence suggests he didn't want to become involved in prolonged and costly international operations. He had criticized Bill Clinton's "nation-building" efforts and said that the United States had to be very restrained in using its military power.

Bush was a politician who cared most about domestic policy. He wanted to re-energize the Republican Party around issues like education reform and the liberalization of immigration laws.

But 9/11 changed everything, shifting the national agenda to foreign policy. Bush focused his efforts on fighting against al Qaeda, and on a war in Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban regime that harbored terrorists. Then, when he and his advisers decided to go to war in Iraq, he moved on a path that would be disastrous.

The war damaged his presidential legacy and eroded the positive feelings many Americans had developed about his leadership after the horrendous attacks on 9/11. Then Sen. Barack Obama defeated Sen. John McCain in 2008, due in large part to his outspoken opinions against the war -- both its faulty rationale and the way in which the president ignored Congress and international opinion.

President Obama now finds himself at a potential crossroads. The initial rollout of this plan has been highly problematic. The administration has failed to build international support for this action and has offered a shifting set of reasons for using force, a strategy that has reminded many Americans of the buildup to Iraq. Obama, who has been such a strong supporter of congressional involvement, seemed to back into announcing that he would approach the House and Senate only when he had no other choice.

Even though an operation in Syria is unlikely to grow to the scale and scope of the bigger conflicts that the United States has been through, it is crucial that Obama handle this situation in the right way, learning from the mistakes of his predecessors. He needs to provide the strongest possible evidence that Syria was responsible for the chemical weapons and make it clear to the public that he does have a plan about the mission in this war.

So, what exactly are Obama's options on Syria?

He needs to marshal public support behind the operation without resorting to scare tactics. He needs to allow legislators to have a healthy debate on what to do, if there is no imminent threat.

If he does, and the operation goes relatively well, Obama can come out of this predicament in relatively good shape and possibly complete work on issues like immigration reform.

If he doesn't, Obama knows that his presidency, and his party, will be paying the consequences for many years.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT