When Barack Obama was a state senator in 2002, he made a now-famous speech asserting that there was no good reason for the United States to invade Iraq. He expressed skepticism about whether the subsequent occupation would be a success. It was a brave thing to do at the time. The national media and many political leaders were throwing their support behind the call to topple Saddam Hussein. Anyone who questioned the invasion was called a coward.
The speech is now sometimes described as being anti-war, but that's not exactly true. His central message was that attacking Iraq would not be like the Civil War or World War II, which were necessary to stop atrocities. "I am not opposed to all wars," he said. "I'm opposed to dumb wars."
Obama's early opposition to Iraq helped him earn the public's trust as he rose to national prominence. He won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton, who had voted to authorize the invasion as a senator. Then he won the presidency over John McCain, who still supported the war and wanted it to continue indefinitely.
Five years later, Obama faces a complicated situation in Syria. The brutal conflict is escalating and could spread into a regional war, possibly one involving Iran and Israel. It's in America's best interest to figure out how to keep the fighting contained and bring it to an end. The president's job is to develop a strategy. Luckily, our current president has shown good judgment on when to avoid the use of military force in the Middle East. Surely he can determine whether getting more involved is a dumb war or not.
The only problem is that Obama no longer has the public's trust. Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose his plan for Syria, which is to launch a limited bombing campaign against Bashar al Assad as punishment for using chemical weapons. People are suspicious that the president is poised to repeat the mistake of Iraq, despite the fact that he was one of the few who was able to foresee what a disaster Iraq would be.
Part of the reason is that Obama had to take on a certain amount of ownership for Iraq when he became commander in chief. For the sake of the troops, he couldn't openly condemn the entire invasion as unjustified. When he announced that the combat mission was ending, he said that "the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success." It would have been extremely tasteless to say, in the next breath, that it was a mistake for them to be there in the first place.
Instead, he talked about how the Iraq War's conclusion was part of a larger pattern of ending U.S. engagements overseas. The day before, Mommar Gaddafi had been ousted from power in Libya. Obama talked how the U.N. forces were moving aside to allow the Libyan people to take responsibility for their own country, similar to the way Iraqis were taking responsibility for theirs. Basically, he made Iraq and Libya sound like they were the same.
But the decision to invade Iraq wasn't anything like one to get involved in Libya. As a Obama said back in 2002, Iraq was a dumb war. The U.S. attacked another sovereign nation because of a suspicion that its leader might use chemical weapons at some undefined point in the future. That's far less justifiable than intervening in an ongoing conflict where America's considerable military can make a difference. But as president, Obama couldn't make a clear distinction between the two scenarios without undermining his role as leader of the armed forces.
Who Obama has chosen for his foreign policy team has also associated him more closely with Iraq. After defeating Clinton in the primary, he appointed her as secretary of state. It amounted to a validation of the wing of the Democratic Party that supported the resolution authorizing the invasion. Obama has also given key appointments to Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, who voted for the resolution as senators. The voices Obama has chosen to make the case for Syria are the same ones that were on television 10 years ago talking about the dangers of chemical weapons and another brutal Arab dictator. It's easy to see why the American public thinks this could be Iraq all over again.
It was not long ago that Obama was seen as a competent military leader. During the 2012 campaign, his poll numbers were always the highest on the issues of fighting terrorism and national security. After all, he is the president who ordered the strike on Osama bin Laden. Mitt Romney's only plausible attack line was that the president was endangering the nation by leaking information that made him look good.
Despite Obama's successes, the Syrian situation has exposed how little he's separated himself from the legacy of the Iraq War. Although the president withdrew all troops from the country, his job required him to praise the war as it ended. And he's surrounded himself with people who did not do enough to oppose the invasion when it could have been avoided.
Most Americans aren't opposed to bombing the Middle East. There's broad support for Obama's drone war, which hits targets throughout the region on a regular basis. But the situation in Syria sounds uncomfortably similar to Iraq, and the president has come to represent the establishment that was so eager to take down Saddam Hussein.
Obama will address the nation on Tuesday at 9:00 PM in an attempt to provide reassurances that striking Assad will be different, but he faces a skeptical nation that's worried this will be another dumb war.