The Obama Administration Should Stop Misleading the American People About How Easy the Syria Mission Will Be

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Sept. 4 2013 3:52 PM

The Syria Mission Is Risky

The Obama administration should stop pretending it’s easy.

President Obama speaks during his joint news conference with the Swedish prime minister at the chancellery Rosenbad in Stockholm.
Should President Obama avoid any talk of risk regarding a possible Syria strike, for political expediency?

Photo by Jessica Gow/Scanpix Sweden/Reuters

After almost 30 years in the Senate, Secretary of State John Kerry should’ve known that Senate hearings are supposed to be free of news. As Sen. John McCain proved, you can even sit through them and play online poker. So it was unusual and exciting to hear Kerry say Tuesday during his testimony in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that he could not promise with metaphysical certitude that ground troops would not be needed in Syria. ““I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country,”

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

A few minutes later, though, Kerry tried to reverse himself, not only clearing the table but trying to seal the room. “Let’s shut that door now,” to ground troops, Kerry said.

Kerry’s initial remark was an attempt to be intellectually honest about the uncertainty of the Syria mission. Good for him. He was just “thinking out loud,” he said, another praiseworthy characteristic. Alas, these are two things you are never supposed to do in public in politics.

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If Kerry can’t keep ground troops from invading his hypotheticals, it might be harder to keep them out of Syria than the administration is pretending. But Kerry’s slip, and his emergency effort to extinguish it, are emblematic of a larger problem with the war-selling effort. The president and his team are doing everything they can to push the Syria mission as a limited and hermetically sealed effort. When risks are talked about it’s almost entirely the risk of doing nothing. The word “tailored” has been used so many times by the administration, the mission should be named Operation Bespoke Reply.

This effort to sanitize should worry and irritate us.

We should worry because someone in charge might actually believe a military operation can be as precise and tailored as the Obama team is claiming. When you deny risk or believe you’ve contained it with careful legislative language, you invite danger. You either don’t see the surprises or you whittle down your options so thoroughly to win the vote in Congress, you make it impossible to win the operation in Syria. “We've tried to minimize that risk in every way we can,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured the Foreign Relations Committee. “Every presentation we've made to the president. The president has insisted on that.” But as William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

This is the lesson of Iraq. Our leaders fooled themselves into thinking they’d licked risk. America would be greeted as a liberator; the insurgents were just dead enders. (This was also the mistake that preceded the financial collapse. Boy, do I have a five-part series for you!) It is the constant state of risk that makes warfare so ugly.

Maybe Obama’s War Council is all too aware of the risks of the Syrian mission. In that case, they’re trying to fool the public. That’s not just dishonest. That undermines the president’s effort.

Those pushing action argue that only America can take on this mission. In doing so they are appealing to a sense of American greatness that goes beyond our military might. It’s not just missiles and tanks that make this greatness. It’s that America is willing to take the risk. That’s why it’s a burden. Still, we decide that the burden is worth it to make the world a better place. Other countries notice and follow our lead.

For many this notion may be a fantasy, and thus they deplore the Syria mission. Others may believe that Syria isn’t a situation to call on America’s greatness. Those are valid arguments, but the president has blown past them. He’s putting his chips on the notion of America’s unique role in the world. Given that he’s embracing that argument, he and his team shouldn’t undermine it by avoiding a genuine conversation about the risks. To do so engages in a version of the sin they say was one of George W. Bush’s greatest: He never talked about the possible risks Americans would face from war in Iraq or called the country to embrace the burden.

To talk honestly about burdens and things that could go wrong is a politically dumb idea of course. In the latest Pew poll about the possible Syrian action, 74 percent of those who oppose the effort say their biggest worry is that it might lead to a backlash in the region. Violence will cause more violence. Those people are not going to be swayed by more talk about risk. So maybe it’s stupid to go to war saying “here it comes and it might hurt.” Still, the logic of Obama’s appeal to Congress requires it. He’s asking for the vote of the people’s representatives to validate his decision. That can’t be done on a wink.

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