What This 1898 War Can Teach Obama Today About Syria


Political insight can come from the darndest places.

On this occasion, inspiration struck me in the midst of insomnia-induced light reading. My nocturnal literary companion, Kristin L. Hoganson's classic historical monograph Fighting for American Manhood, was discussing the various ways in which Victorian ideals on masculinity influenced America's imperialist ambitions at the turn-of-the-century. As I reached the chapter on President William McKinley's decision to go to war with the Spanish Empire, aptly titled "McKinley's Backbone," I came across this thought-provoking observation:

Those who have focused attention on McKinley's courage or strength ... have deflected attention from a more significant issue: How did U.S. political culture, especially the need to appear manly in order to wield political authority, affect what seemed to be viable policy alternatives in the aftermath of the Maine disaster?

Although Hoganson's question only pertains to the aftermath of the February 1898 sinking of the USS Maine (one that, despite unclear evidence as to the actual cause of the explosion, was widely blamed on Spain thanks to jingoistic politicians, muckraking newspaper editors, and a pre-existing hostility against the Spanish Empire due to its brutal repression of independence rebels in Cuba), it has intriguing implications for the dilemma Barack Obama must deal with in Syria.

Like McKinley, who abhorred war and privately emphasized his desire to resolve conflicts through peaceful means whenever possible, Obama has made it clear that he wishes to explore other diplomatic and other foreign policy options before resorting to military violence. Also like McKinley, he is being confronted with enormous political pressure to forgo these potential alternatives and declare war as quickly as possible. While the social rules of our PC age have made direct attacks on Obama's masculinity unacceptable in mainstream political discourse (although subtle ones can be found), the general notion that his reluctance to go to war makes him weak can be traced back to similar conceptual roots.

In short, even though the details were often quite different, the fundamental struggle both men face(d) was essentially the same: President versus paradigm, with the responsibilities of sound statecraft being pitted against a wide array of social assumptions that compel true leaders to, idiomatically speaking, "think outside the box."

Of course, because he was either unable or unwilling to defy the paradigmatic thinking of his time, McKinley ultimately succumbed to outside pressures and declared war on Spain, triggering first the Spanish-American and then the Philippine-American wars. Similarly, for Obama to avoid repeating his predecessor's mistakes, he will need to challenge several of our own time's faulty premises as to what defines strong foreign policy leadership, including:

1. The idea that strong leadership is best demonstrated through non-deferential use of executive agency.

If there is any cause for hope that Obama will attempt to shape as well as follow the flow of history, it is his decision to ask Congress for permission to declare war on Syria rather than follow the precedent set by the Korean War, which President Harry Truman entered without legislative approval. Given that Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution explicitly designated Congress with the power "to declare war," it is noteworthy and refreshing that Obama has returned to Madisonian principles here after it has been flouted for more than six decades. At the same time, it is now incumbent upon him to make sure that he honors Congress's decision, regardless of how closely it hews to his administration's own preferred policy. Conservatives and libertarians are already channeling their hyperpartisan opposition to liberal presidents into a myriad of spinned arguments that attempt to turn Obama's constitutional fealty into a cudgel they can use against him (e.g., George Will, John Yoo, Rand Paul). As those political pressures combine with the volatility of Middle Eastern politics in general, there will no doubt be many temptations for Obama to fudge on his promise to proceed with Syria in a constitutional fashion. How he fares here will be the first major test of his leadership.

2. The idea that America is morally compelled to intervene during international crises.

The most compelling argument for a military campaign in Syria is the evidence of the atrocities committed by President Bashar al-Assad, from the use of chemical weapons against his own people to recent reports of attacks against hospitals. While few would disagree that America should condemn these actions and exhaust all diplomatic channels in order to get them to stop, there is a danger to automatically assuming our responsibilities should extend to declaring war. For one thing, human rights atrocities occurr all over the world on a daily basis, which makes it tricky to establish which occasions warrant our intervention and which ones don't barring clear threats to our national security interests. What's more, American interventions in the Middle Eastern have a long history of backfiring against our interests; just look at the blowback we suffered after participating in the 1953 overthrowing of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and arming the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet invasion, to name only three examples (and ignoring more recent concerns in Egypt and Libya). In light of evidence that the Syrian rebels may contain extreme Islamist elements, we should be especially cautious before assuming that any force which deems itself "revolutionary" by its very nature shares our ideals.

3. The idea that America can afford to go to war.

Also complicating matters, morally speaking, is the potentially prohibitive financial cost of our involvement. With legitimate questions lingering about the price tag of a Syrian war and America already $1.4 trillion in the red for our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we can't afford to be cavalier about the prospect of adding more to the massive debt we intend on bequeathing to future generations (which is already in excess of $16 trillion). Even if one goes the Keynesian route by arguing that government debts aren't always a bad thing, we still need to make sure the money we do spend is invested wisely. At a time when official unemployment figures are stuck over 7% and unofficial estimates are even higher, a powerful moral case can be made that any future expenditures should be focused on reviving the economy for the millions of citizens still stuck in the Great Recession (whether you support this by New Deal-esque job creation programs, tax cuts, or a combination of the two is a debate for another time).

None of this is intended to minimize the considerable differences between the circumstances of McKinley's America in 1898 and the one Obama must lead in 2013, with the former needing to prove a young republic's mettle in a world of Pax Britannica and the latter inheriting a global superpower in the age of Pax Americana. Such significant contrasts notwithstanding, however, the basic lesson for Obama can be gleaned from Hoganson's closing thoughts on McKinley:

Aware of the links between manhood, military prowess, and political power ... McKinley reached the logical conclusion that war was politically imperative. His decision to join the jingoes was less a reflection of his courage or cowardice, strength or weakness, than an acknowledgment that the political system he operated in would not permit any other course of action.

While Hoganson the historian is constrained from going further than this in assessing McKinley's character, political pundits are not bound by any such strictures. The overall brilliance of her book notwithstanding, Hoganson is wrong when she implicitly argues that McKinley's failure to stand by his principles was not primarily a testament to his character. Courage is defined not by what others say you are, but by your adherence to what you believe is right over all obstacles ... even if one of those hurdles, ironically enough, is the perception that you're a coward. Needless to say, America will greatly benefit if Obama shows the courage that McKinley lacked.