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September 05, 2013 9:25 AM Return of the “No-Win War” Meme

By Ed Kilgore

This morning’s news is full of storm warnings for the president’s effort to secure a congressional authorization to use force against Syria. An Allen-Sherman report in Politico today suggests that up to 80% of House Republicans currently oppose a use-of-force resolution, with the House GOP leadership refusing to whip it. And the near-universal Democratic support that would be necessary to overcome these levels of Republican opposition is not at all apparent. Public opinion isn’t favorable, and “active” public opinion, the kind that motivates people to call or write Congress, is heavily, heavily negative.

Obama will reportedly make a prime-time speech next week to rally support. It needs to be one of his better efforts.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of interesting currents in the swirling debate over Syria. This one, as articulated by Stephen F. Hayes at today’s Wall Street Journal, could be understood as the inevitable response to the neocon argument for keeping hope of a larger war alive that I wrote about on Wednesday:

To believe that an Obama-led intervention will end well requires disregarding everything he’s done—or hasn’t done—over two years in favor of an illusory expectation that he’ll act with newfound determination to shape the outcome in a region ravaged by war. That’s unlikely.
There are many reasons for the U.S. to intervene in Syria: more than 100,000 dead, two million refugees, the repeated use of chemical weapons by a dictator who sponsors anti-American terrorists and is the puppet of a regime in Iran that is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror. The moral imperative is clear; the strategic case is solid.
But a successful intervention requires a commander in chief committed to changing the war’s momentum and changing the regime in Damascus. The White House has eschewed both. The only thing worse than not intervening in Syria would be a failed intervention—an outcome that will make future American interventions, by this president or another, in Syria or elsewhere, even more difficult.

Old folks and students of history may recognize this argument as the “no-win-war” meme of the Cold War Era, usually made by Republicans deploring a Democratic president’s “containment” strategies that placed intolerable constraints on warriors and weapons. Here’s a vintage example from the Goldwater campaign of 1964, featuring actor Raymond Massey:

The “no-win-war” argument enabled Cold War conservatives to separate support for the troops and for the cause from their hostile attitude towards their liberal civilian commanders, whose lack of resolution and incompetence—if not secret treachery—was as large a danger to American lives as the enemy. It also enabled them to switch from hostility to a given war—say, the Vietnam War—to support once political power was in the right hands.

Hayes’ main point is that a limited military engagement in Syria could queer the pitch for the great big and bloody war he wants, presumably with Iran. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that the same course of action would have received a very different reception had it been Mitt Romney at the controls, if only because Mitt spent a good part of the 2012 cycle making it clear his eyes were on the prize in Tehran.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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