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President Obama Avoids GOP Trap on Syria

09/01/2013 12:00 pm ET | Updated Nov 01, 2013

GOP congressional leaders tried to have their cake and eat it too on Syria. They spent months screaming at and for President Obama to take action against Syria. Their first call was to take out Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and then their later call was to hit hard at his military's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. Then GOP congressional leaders deftly switched gears and demanded that Obama seek congressional approval before launching any strikes against the Assad regime.

If Obama had bowed to the initial GOP demands to take military action before getting congressional approval, GOP leaders would have jumped all over him and blamed him for not getting that approval -- and they wouldn't have stopped there. They would have also blamed him for any real or perceived failure to remove the Assad regime, or failure to sufficiently degrade his military to enable the rebels to defeat it, or for igniting a blowback that would further strengthen the hand of al-Qaeda linked radical Islamist factions fighting to topple Assad.

They would have sanctimoniously waved the provision in the Constitution that strictly forbids a president from engaging in any military action in the absence of an actual or imminent danger of an attack against the United States. The president does have authority under the 1973 War Powers Act in some situations to wage limited war with a strict time constraint on it without congressional approval but even here at least on paper the president must report to Congress on the action. The GOP rendered this a largely moot point when it switched gears and hoisted the demand that Obama take no action without congressional approval.

Obama recognized the damned if I do, damned if I don't trap that the GOP had laid when he tossed any decision to strike Syria back to Congress. But even this didn't silence Obama's GOP critics. They quickly trotted out the line that Obama wasted time by not consulting Congress in the first place, and that this further contributed to the muddle in Syria. The GOP's shallow, and self-serving gyrations to hammer Obama notwithstanding, the truth is that the type of unspecified intervention that the GOP demanded Obama take would have had potentially disastrous unintended consequences from killing innocent civilians to further stirring anti- American hatreds in the Middle East while doing nothing to rid Syria of Assad. The Obama administration would have had to answer for those consequences.

Obama fortunately had enough of the history of the Bush administrations bungles in Iraq and Afghanistan on his side to draw lessons from. This started with his own accurate assessment that he made of the Iraq war as a presidential candidate in 2007. He lambasted the Iraq war, calling it the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even more pointedly, he called it "a dumb war." Instead, Obama pushed Afghan intervention as the right war, but with the caveat that even with this war, there should be specific goals, specific timetables, and a specific exit plan for getting out of that war.

In his pre-presidential speeches, interviews and comments on the war, Obama massaged his war plan. He promised to set a timetable for eventual withdrawal, get out of Iraq and corral America's European and Middle East allies in a partnership to wipe out the terrorists and their mass destructive weapons. He also vowed to end corruption, hold free elections, bolster Afghan security forces, boost intelligence gathering and monitoring, beef up Afghan security forces, and ensure a stable government in Afghanistan. But in the years after he spelled out that plan, the United States shelled out between $4 to $6 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And even now there's still no long-term guarantee that the goals of the wars will be met.

The sobering reality was that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the most expensive wars in US history with the returns on both problematic. This was certainly a prime factor in Obama's call for the eventual wind down of the war. Obama recognized that the Iraq war was an ugly and shameful page in U.S. history and that millions of Americans were furious and frustrated by it. The jury is still out on the Afghan war.

The GOP's politically cynical demand that Obama intervene in Syria without fully assessing the gains, and losses of a headlong rush into the country's civil war, and without an accurate scorecard to tell which warring faction in the country would truly bring humane, democratic rule to Syria, would be foolhardy at best and utterly disastrous at worst. Obama now won't have to make a one man stand on Syria with all the perils and pitfalls that that would have engendered. Not the least being the trap that the GOP had hoped to set for him.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.