Syria Clash Revives Obama-McCain Contrast of 2008

Jill Lawrence

There’s no groundswell among Americans for the United States to get involved more deeply in the ongoing tragedy of Syria. Three polls released in December, by Pew, CNN, and ABC News/Washington Post make that completely clear.

Nearly two-thirds in the Pew poll said America doesn’t have a responsibility to do something about fighting in Syria, and a similar supermajority said the United States shouldn’t send arms to groups trying to overthrow the Syrian government. Arms were opposed by 55 percent in the CNN poll, and ground troops were a complete nonstarter. Three-quarters in the ABC/Post poll opposed intervention (though majorities said they’d favor it if Syrian government forces invaded a neighbor or used chemical weapons on their own people).

So there’s no question that last year, in the middle of his reelection campaign, President Obama was in tune with public opinion when he rejected the recommendations of his entire national security team—the secretaries of State and Defense, the CIA director, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff—to arm the Syrian rebels. Did politics drive Obama’s decision? Or did he show strength in resisting the recommendations of the team, given concerns that U.S. weapons could fall into the wrong hands?

Some conservatives are wondering about the role of politics. With at least 60,000 dead so far, some are upset about the policy consequences. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose questioning at a hearing last week revealed the incident, called Obama’s decision “disgraceful,” “incomprehensible,” “shameful,” and “very dangerous” in an appearance on Fox News Sunday.

Yet imagine for a moment that you’re Obama, leading a country burdened by debt, unemployment, and intractable politics, digging slowly out of a deep recession and two wars. Then think about the inevitability of unintended consequences. Egyptian democracy, strongly supported by the United States, has produced a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Libya, where we helped oust Muammar el-Qaddafi, is so dangerous and chaotic that the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were murdered. Some of Qaddafi's weapons, meanwhile, ended up in the hands of Islamic terrorists in Mali.

So yes, what’s going on in Syria is a terrible tragedy, and there are good reasons for the United States to get involved, such as trying to shorten the conflict, save lives, and lay a foundation to influence post-Assad Syria. But some of those ends can be achieved by continuing to provide humanitarian aid, gather intelligence, and help ensure that arms and other assistance get to the right rebel groups. It's a long game.

The 2008 faceoff between Obama and McCain showcased the temperamental gulf between the two men. Obama is cool and restrained; McCain likes to break china. McCain is as aggressive as Obama is passive-aggressive, as impatient as Obama is patient.

Both leadership styles are maddening in their ways, and both have their merits. But as Wall Street was collapsing, and after eight years of a president who operated more on gut instinct than painstaking deliberation, voters elected Obama. His slow, careful approach to decision-making seemed to many voters to be a selling point, not a problem he needed to overcome.

Oddly enough, it was one of McCain’s fellow Republicans who came to Obama’s defense over the weekend. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, part of the House GOP leadership, said he agrees with the president that it’s too risky to arm the rebels. He said Obama is being “appropriately cautious” and showed guts in resisting the recommendation from his top leaders. “This is real presidential leadership,” Cole said on ABC’s This Week. “He deserves a lot of respect. And it's a tough call either way.”

Cole and McCain illuminated deep divisions within the GOP over when, how, and why the United States should intervene abroad. And Obama is again fueling the “leading from behind” theme that one day could revive the Democrats’ image as weak on security. So there are definitely politics in play over Syria. The question is whether there will be any political winners.