Is Syria the new Iraq?

Critics say President Obama may be making the same mistakes in Syria that the Bush administration did in Iraq: acting on weak intelligence, personalizing the enemy, not adequately accounting for unintended blowback.

By , Staff writer

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    The White House is shown on Friday, as discussion continues on what action the administration will take regarding Syria and the use of chemical weapons, including whether the US will act alone in any military strike at the Assad regime.
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Might Syria be the new Iraq?

The British Parliament on Thursday voted against helping the US strike Syria, in part, because many lawmakers remain bitter over Great Britain’s participation in the lengthy, troubled US-led war that ousted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In the US, critics say it’s ironic that President Obama is pushing military action against a tyrant over weapons of mass destruction, given that Senator Obama opposed President Bush’s push to do the same thing 10 years ago.

“Many of the same objections that Obama once voiced are being hurled back at him by opponents of an intervention in Syria,” writes Time’s Michael Crowley Friday on the Swampland blog.

Recommended: Chemical weapons 101: Six facts about sarin and Syria’s stockpile

There’s some doubt about the nature of US intelligence on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, for one thing, as there was about US charges in 2003 that Hussein was stockpiling his own weapons of mass destruction.

While video and forensic evidence provide little doubt that hundreds of Syrian civilians were killed by poison gas, there appears to be no smoking gun bit of intelligence tying top members of the Bashar al-Assad regime to the attack. It is possible that middle-level commanders ordered the chemical strike on their own initiative.

There’s also worry that US retaliation could produce unintended blowback consequences, as the US invasion of Iraq produced an unintended sectarian conflict that sucked America into a decade-long war.

Lobbing a few cruise missiles at the Syrian government might goad it to use chemical weapons again, writes Marine Lt. Col. Gordon Miller of the Center for a New American Security. It could lead Iran to provide Syria with more overt military support. It could even drag Israel into conflict, if Syria decides to retaliate against its regional neighbor and US ally.

“Although these worst case scenarios have a low probability of occurring, they must be included in the planning for the impending operations to help prevent the potential for a catastrophic situation in the Middle East, writes Miller.

Finally, there’s the personalization of the Obama administration’s approach. Syria's Assad is the leader responsible for the attack, and he needs to be punished, in this formulation. That sounds a bit like the way the Bush administration used to talk about a certain mustachioed, blustering Iraqi.

Wrap all this together, and some critics say the US has not made a good case for its impending Syria actions. Even some of the architects of the US involvement in Iraq take this position.

“One thing that’s very interesting, it seems to me, is that there really hasn’t been any indication from the administration as to what our national interest is with respect to this particular situation,” said ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld earlier this week.

For its part, the White House strenuously rejects the Syria-equals-Iraq analogy. The situation today is much different than it was in 2003, said White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday.

There’s a preponderance of evidence in the public domain, such as videos and photos on social media, that proves Syria used chemical weapons against civilians, said Mr. Earnest. Mr. Obama has been clear that any US strike on Syria will be limited in scope, and he’s also said that the point of any attack would not be to push out the Assad regime.

“What we saw in [2003 prior to action in Iraq] was an administration that was searching high and low to produce evidence to justify a military invasion, an open-ended military invasion of another country, with the final goal being regime change,” said Earnest.

Some conservatives agree that Syria is not Iraq, but for the opposite reason: The Bush administration did a better job justifying US action in the Middle East, they say.

The Bush White House produced a 16-point argument for US action in Iraq, of which Hussein’s alleged WMD was only one point, says right-leaning talk show host Ed Morrissey on "Hot Air." Mr. Bush went to Congress and won a vote authorizing force. The Bush administration went to the UN to make its case, not just with WMD intelligence, which later proved false, but with assertions that Hussein had continually violated a string of UN Security Council resolutions.

“Critics of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq may scoff, but George W. Bush scrupulously made the case for military intervention in Iraq,” writes Mr. Morrissey.

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