Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

The Obama-Kerry flip-flop on unilateralism

Image Credit: spirit of america /

Image Credit: spirit of america /

Barack Obama criticized George W. Bush for launching a “unilateral” military attack against a Baathist dictator who used chemical weapons on his people.

Now it seems, Obama is preparing to — wait for it — launch a unilateral military attack against a Baathist dictator who used chemical weapons on his people.

In a story entitled “U.S. Prepares for Solo Strike On Syria After Britain Balks,” The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Obama administration laid the groundwork for unilateral military action in Syria, a shift officials said reflected the U.K.’s abrupt decision not to participate ….

But President Barack Obama is prepared to act without Britain, officials said, noting that unlike U.S. involvement in the 2011 military operation in Libya, the options under consideration in Syria are smaller-scale and wouldn’t require a coalition to be effective.

Nice try, but the liberal line is not that we need a coalition to be effective, but that we needed a coalition to be legitimate.

Liberals painted Bush as the go-it-alone unilateralist who alienated our allies, and promised that Democrats would usher in a new era of international cooperation. But while Bush rallied 30-countries to send ground forces to Iraq (after a four-nation led invasion), Obama can’t seem to find anyone to join him in firing a simple “shot across the bow” in Syria.

Recall how Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry mocked Bush for his “coalition of the willing” during the 2004 presidential debates?

In one debate,  Kerry said, “We’re going to build alliances.  We’re not going to go in unilaterally. We’re not going to go alone like this president did.”

In another, Kerry declared: “When we went in there were three countries, Great Britain, Australia and the United States. That’s not a grand coalition. We can do better.”

Apparently not. It seems even Great Britain is not joining us in Syria.

It seems France is still with us. Wonder if that now qualifies in Kerry’s mind as a “grand coalition”?

8 thoughts on “The Obama-Kerry flip-flop on unilateralism

  1. The comparison at the top is intellectually dishonest (but this is by torture apologist Marc Thiessen, so why should we be be surprised). The Obama administration is considering a response to a current situation to prevent a repetition. Bush was not. Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against his own people predated not only his administration, but even his father’s administration. While Bush’s claimed reason for invading was possession of chemical weapons, it was based on a combination of faulty intelligence and an unwillingness to believe anything that contradicted that faulty intelligence.

  2. Michael, you’re clearly missing the larger point. Both Kerry and Obama ran AGAINST the type of action they’re now apparently planning to engage in. President Obama wouldn’t be considering bombing Syria if he’d just kept his mouth shut and never mentioned a red line in the first place. Not to mention the hypocrisy of Obama and Biden when it comes to the need for Congressional approval.

    • There are many principles that are not absolute. The Constitution requires a search warrant for police to enter private property uninvited. However, there is an exception in exigent circumstances, where there is reasonable belief that lives are in imminent danger if they wait for a search warrant. You and Mr. Thiessen apparently believe that if anyone ever criticizes police for violating the Fourth Amendment in non-exigent circumstances, they are hypocritical if they permit it in exigent circumstances.

      In other words: context matters.

      Note that none of this has any bearing on whether military action, unilateral or not, is likely to achieve the desired goal, or is in the best interest of the United States. You might also argue that the circumstances are not as exigent as the administration claims. Those are separate questions worthy of debate. I’m just pointing out that Mr. Thiessen can only bring the hypocrisy charge by ignoring context, and claiming that Obama and Kerry intended to establish multilateralism as an absolute principle not subject to any exceptions, even when active murder is going on. It is not at all clear to me that he did.

  3. 9/11 was the context. What is the context now?
    Seems like the same one when Muslims in Darfur were slaughtering Christians and black Africans during the Clinton days.
    Yes, context does matter. If both parties vehemently hate the US, and savages are gassing barbarians…why should we care. That is who/and what our context is now.
    Great intellectual point, but take a stand man!

    • The problem is that 9/11 was used as justification for attacking a country that had nothing to do with it. And no matter how we dance around the issues there is no context to justify a military attack against Syria without launching attacks against many other countries, including a number of allies.

  4. Michael, thanks for putting your point about hypocrisy in context.

    Your point that many principles–not all principles, of course, I agree (depending on context)–are not absolute, well, what more can one add? And I appreciate your drawing our attention to the fact that while, sure, Bashar has just plain murdered some share of the estimated 100,000 dead, he has *actively* murdered some few thousand with chemical weapons. Obviously, in context, the latter cannot be tolerated. We, at least, are not savages.

    And readers certainly should not be mislead by the acontextual remarks of a torture apologist. (Though I confess, Michael, just between us, in this context, I’m not sure that “torture apologist” is relevant. It *is* a first-rate put-down though!).

    Finally, Michael, I want to say I empathize: I like totally understand why it’s not at all clear. I mean anything. Or everything. You know? It’s so confusing, out of context.

    We can argue about other worthy things later.

  5. Another idiotic piece by Marc Thiessen. Since this piece is dead wrong, Thiessen is now bashing Obama for getting the congressional support.

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