Welcome to U.S. Foreign Policy 101. This is not meant to explain what’s going on in Syria or what Obama can or will do about it. This is merely to dispel a few false equivalencies floating around out there, which are making the whole Syria issue harder to understand and debate. Put another way: to get a handle on what we are talking about, it will help to understand what we are not talking about.
1. Syria is not like Iraq
This one is out there in a few different forms. Syria has been in a civil war for two years, while Iraq was a stable, if repressive and tyrannical, dictatorship when we invaded. Syria, like Iraq, is a country in the Middle East that survives economically with the help of oil reserves, but Syria doesn’t have anywhere near the oil reserves that Iraq does. The lessons from Iraq can be relevant to Syria, but there is a lot of “if you were anti-Iraq War, you have to be anti-Syria too,” which assumes that the two situations are identical, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
2. Obama is not like Bush
Yes, they have both been hawkish when it comes to foreign policy, but if Bush were still in office, we would probably still be in Iraq, and the Afghanistan War probably would not have an end date. Obama has shown no appetite for a ground war in Syria, while Bush might be moving us in that direction. Bush chose a cabinet full of neo-cons, while Obama selected Iraq War opponent Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense. That’s not to say that Obama doesn’t require scrutiny on foreign policy matters, but be very wary of anyone who ignores the fact that America is now under different management.
3. A set of air strikes is nothing like a ground war
Read a few opinion pieces on what America should or shouldn’t do about Syria, and it won’t take long before you find someone glomming all military action into one label. A ground war is what we had in Iraq and still have in Afghanistan: American troops coming in by the thousand to fight against an enemy. What Obama has proposed and Congress is considering are air strikes: planes bombing specific targets over a limited time. That’s not to downplay the consequences of air strikes, but they can be limited in a way that a ground war cannot be. If Obama says that our involvement with Syria will be done by Christmas, there will be at least some hope that he is telling the truth (whereas Bush was off with Iraq by about seven Christmases).
4. That said: the military industrial complex is still the military industrial complex
One reason that America seems to have a penchant for going to war is that defense contractors like Halliburton, Xe and Boeing make a lot of money off of war. All of these corporations have lobbyists, and those lobbyists have a financial incentive to push legislators toward war. Obama has shown a willingness to work with corporate lobbyists, but expect the larger effects of the military industrial complex to be felt in Congress, who now seems to hold the cards on whether or not the U.S. launches a military attack on Syria.
5. A pundit is not an expert
Not to mock my own credibility on this issue, but in our world of instapinions, it’s easy to forget that most of what’s being written and spoken about Syria these days is coming from people who read an article or two and gave themselves a Wikipedia crash course. Syria is a complex mingling of demographics, power dynamics and shifting alliances. It’s okay to be uncertain on what’s going on in Syria and what the U.S. should do. The media prefers opinions to facts, because opinions sell better, but that doesn’t mean that they come from more than a superficial understanding.