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On Not Learning From The Past

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The high-stakes controversy swirling around Mr. Obama’s seeming confusion over how to address the issue of Syria’s use of chemical weapons appears to be a byproduct of this president’s inability to learn from the experiences of his predecessors.

Mr. Obama seems to be failing in his effort to rally most Americans and Congress – and, indeed, the international community – to support punitive measures against Syria. The failure is all the more glaring when one recalls how President George W. Bush was able to rally such support when the issue was whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the case of Syria, no one disputes possession of chemical weapons, only their use and by whom.

Of course, President Bush’s plans for Iraq foundered in part on the failure to confirm the presence of WMD. Nevertheless, the key lesson of Iraq that has eluded Mr. Obama is that most Americans will no longer support open-ended, ill-defined military ventures. Thus, while it would be one thing to surgically topple a dictator – through, say, extensive bombing of military facilities – it would be quite another to seek, as President Bush did, to transform entire societies and political systems, an undertaking that would require U.S. soldiers on the ground.

From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, President Obama has called for punishing Mr. Assad but has stopped short of expressing any wish to drive him from power. What was left unexplained, however, was how such a tailored effort would “punish” Mr. Assad if it didn’t result in giving the rebels a significant leg up.

Nor did the president exactly inspire trust when news reports surfaced that he had actually ordered the Pentagon to significantly add to the original list of potential targets and to prepare for the possible use of far greater firepower than previously announced. And Mr. Obama can hardly run from his early embrace of the Arab Spring phenomenon, which was rooted in throwing dictators out and supporting purportedly democratic movements seeking to replace them.

As Mr. Obama hopefully is starting to understand – nearly five years into his presidency – a foreign policy so disjointed, inconsistent and feckless is a recipe for disaster rather than a blueprint for any further Nobel peace prizes.

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