WASHINGTON - The ghosts of Iraq are looming over both the White House and the American public this week as U.S. President Barack Obama decides whether to launch attacks on Syria after it purportedly gassed almost 1,500 of its own citizens last week.
The president sought on Friday to distinguish any Syrian intervention from the situation in Iraq a decade ago, assuring Americans that any military strike would be a "limited, narrow act."
"We're not considering any open-ended commitment," he said at the White House. "We're not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach. We have consulted with allies. We have consulted with Congress."
Earlier this week, Obama assured Americans that intervention in Syria would not lead to another Iraq.
"(We're) not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about," Obama said in an interview with PBS.
Indeed, with British MPs voting against military action, and polls showing Americans are deeply skeptical about the U.S. getting involved in yet another Middle East conflict, the legacy of the George W. Bush administration appears to be a visceral aversion to war among politicians and citizens alike in the superpower.
"The American people are tired of war," Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged on Friday. "But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility."
Bush, for his part, refused to be drawn into stating his opinion on Syria in an interview that aired on Fox News.
"The president’s got a tough choice to make," said Bush, who quickly added that he refused "to be roped in" to stating what he thinks Obama should do.
Donald Rumsfeld, a key Bush administration official who was one of the architects of a war waged on false intelligence a decade ago, has been more forthright, saying earlier this week he's "confounded" that the Obama administration has failed to explain why attacking Syria would be in the national interest of the United States.
"There really hasn't been any indication from the administration as to what our national interest is with respect to this particular situation," said the former defense secretary.
Other Bush-era officials have weighed in on what Obama should do amid growing evidence that their actions on Iraq have significantly contributed to the president's isolation today.
“It is a mess largely of the president's own creation," said John Bolton, the UN ambassador under Bush. "I think our credibility has been damaged, I think the president's credibility has been. But feckless use of military force would damage the country's credibility more."
Some Bush veterans, however, penned a letter to Obama this week urging him to "respond decisively" to Assad. Those who signed the dispatch included Dan Senor, a one-time spokesman for Bush on Iraq, and Elliott Abrams, a Bush adviser and a member of his National Security Council.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron unsuccessfully urged MPs not to allow the "spectre" of previous military interventions to prevent Britain from responding with force to the horrors in Syria. He added he was mindful of what happened a decade ago, when Tony Blair committed British troops to the invasion of Iraq under false intelligence.
"But this is not Iraq," Cameron told the House of Commons. "What we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different. We are not invading a country. We are not searching for chemical or biological weapons."
A recent intelligence assessment on Syria found that President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons 14 times since 2012. In an unclassified report released Friday, the U.S. said it has "high confidence" that Assad was behind the attacks based on myriad sources, including human and satellite intelligence.
"Its findings are as clear as they are compelling," Kerry said of the report as he made a forceful pitch for U.S intervention in Syria during an appearance at the State Department.
Memories of the faulty intelligence on Iraq from a decade ago, however, are apparently still fresh in the United States in the midst of the debate about an intervention in Syria.
According to an NBC News poll released Friday, nearly 80 per cent of Americans believe Obama should receive congressional approval before using force in Syria.
Fifty per cent of Americans believe the U.S. shouldn't intervene in Syria at all, the poll found. The public is more supportive of military action if it's limited to launching cruise missiles — 50 per cent favoured that type of military action, while 44 per cent disapproved.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been expressing dismay about the prospect of an American president going to war without congressional input or approval, as Bush threatened to do in 2007 against Iran. A third of them have asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force in Syria.
The Obama administration has made a series of disclosures this week that seem aimed at placating the concerns of Americans and their lawmakers while distinguishing any action in Syria from the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
They've said the U.S. will only launch cruise missile attacks, for example, that will last only two to three days. The goal, they add, is to punish Assad, not remove him from power.
On Thursday, members of Obama's national security team also provided 26 lawmakers with an unclassified briefing on intelligence they say shows Assad was responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus. After the president hunkered down Friday morning with his national security team, the White House said it's also giving legislators and U.S. allies additional classified intelligence.
But even some military officials have deep misgivings about attacking Syria.
Marine Lt.-Col. Gordon Miller, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned this week of “potentially devastating consequences, including a fresh round of chemical weapons attacks and a military response by Israel.”
"If President Assad were to absorb the strikes and use chemical weapons again, this would be a significant blow to the United States’ credibility and it would be compelled to escalate the assault on Syria to achieve the original objectives," Miller wrote in a piece for the think-tank.
Canada, meantime, has no plans for a military intervention in Syria but supports its allies who are contemplating forceful action against that country’s regime, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday.
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