In one of the best Presidential interviews done in years (an indictment of our media can be seen in the fact that two of the most interesting interviews during the election came from MTV and Jon Stewart), President Obama responded to a question about how he deals with the violence in Syria. His response should serve as a major schooling to the war hawks (especially those who have never been to war).
Here’s an excerpt from The New Republic’s must-read interview with President Obama:
CH: The last question is about Syria. I wonder if you can speak about how you personally, morally, wrestle with the ongoing violence there.
Obama: Every morning, I have what’s called the PDB—presidential daily briefing—and our intelligence and national security teams come in here and they essentially brief me on the events of the previous day. And very rarely is there good news. And a big chunk of my day is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.
And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?
Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good.
President Obama is talking about weighing the moral consequences of the use of his presidential power. This is something George W Bush never did. It matters. Students of presidential power should study this excerpt.
Obama’s entire answer is worth careful study, but I’m highlighting this section, “Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime?” because these are but a few of the questions we were never allowed to ask before we invaded Iraq.
Perhaps most shameful about our invasion of Iraq is that it did not “speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.” It had nothing to do with our humanity, or American ideals. That does not mean that our troops did not engage in positive activities post-invasion. We did. We had massive rebuilding efforts and outreach efforts. But they wouldn’t have been necessary had we never invaded.
What’s done is done and can’t be undone. That is the reason why we must have leaders who are willing to weigh each situation according to our principles, while never forgetting to ask the hard questions about the possible outcome and impact of an invasion.
One of the worst things about war is that once you start one, you can’t just leave when it’s no longer popular. We often get cynical about politics and suggest that it doesn’t matter which person we elect. But this excerpt alone tells a very different story. It does matter. Even if this were the only time it mattered (and it’s far from it), this is big enough that it ought to play a larger part in our process than it did in 2012.