TOPICS > Politics

Can Past U.S. Military Engagements Shed Light on the Syria Conundrum?

September 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Congress prepares to take up the difficult debate over how and whether to punish Syria's Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons, Gwen Ifill talks to presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University about the history of American war and what past conflicts can teach us.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we pick up on some of the themes that Mark and David were just talking about.

As we have heard, the president will make his case about Syria to the nation next week.

Gwen Ifill gets some historical perspective on the War Powers Act and a commander in chief’s ability to sway public opinion.

GWEN IFILL: As the White House and Congress debate how the U.S. should handle the situation in Syria, what can past military engagements teach us about what we face today?

For that, we turn to presidential historians and NewsHour regulars Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Related Video

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Thanks.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: The most common comparison we have heard in the run-up to this, whatever is going happen next to Syria, is a comparison to Iraq.

Michael, how much is this like that and how much is this not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, the Iraq — one way of comparing it to Iraq was, in the 1980s, Iraq was using chemical weapons against its own people and against Iranians, and the United States didn’t do a thing.

But the problem with the war in Iraq for a president like President Obama nowadays is that everyone has in his or her memory the fact that we went to a very costly war, both in terms of lives, treasure, and years, that was fought, at least ostensibly, to rid the world of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that didn’t turn out to exist.

GWEN IFILL: Well, one of the things that we all remember in our muscle memory is that there have been great debates about war and peace in Congress. And now we see a debate about to unfold that is rooted in the War Powers Act, or is it not?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It is an outgrowth of the War Powers Act, which is itself an expression of a tug-of-war that is basically older than the republic between the executive and Congress.

Literally, one of the real points of debate at the Constitutional Convention was over a president’s war-making powers. George Mason of my namesake university didn’t sign the final document because of his objections.

More recently, you talk about Iraq, for example. One of the real big differences, it seems to me is, clearly, Iraq was about regime change. I mean, there was that just — a justification.

GWEN IFILL: They’re making the point that’s precisely what this is not about.


GWEN IFILL: But when you think about the War Powers Act, the president has never really had to go to Congress — in fact, this president said, I don’t have to go, but I’m going to go anyway.


The War Powers Act was passed in ’73. Virtually every president since then has said, I don’t think this is constitutional. But at the same time, they plan these military engagements so that it doesn’t kick in. Something as grand as the Gulf War in 1991, that was to some extent designed so that it wouldn’t last longer than the 60 days that would bring Congress in to say whether this is a good idea or not.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And, remember, the War Powers Act, again, is very much a creation of its time. It was passed by both houses, literally, the week that Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president, and it was vetoed by a greatly weakened Richard Nixon the same week as the famed Saturday night massacre.

It represented the absolute nadir of executive authority following Vietnam and Watergate. And, for 40 years, as Michael says, presidents and Congresses, for that matter, have been dancing around the constitutionality of the act.

GWEN IFILL: How is this different, however, from not only Iraq, but, say, Kosovo, say, Grenada, say, the Nicaraguan Contras, say, Rwanda?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Different from all of them.

Kosovo is the most recent and big example, 78 days of NATO bombing to make sure that atrocities were not committed any more by Serbs, and that succeeded and wound up in a peace treaty. That was a great success. But Bill Clinton wasn’t able to get Congress to agree to this, with the exception of financing it. So, that was a case where he was able to do good without Congress declaring itself involved.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And Kosovo, in many ways, was a reaction to the fact that the world had done nothing in Rwanda. This is — this is, needless to say, exactly flipped.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And the idea, to the contrary, is that chemical weapons is something that civilized nations of the world have felt strongly against ever since mustard gas in the trenches in World War I.

GWEN IFILL: Including Congress in 2003.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And no one is doing anything about it.

If Franklin Roosevelt was here, he would say, that’s why I created the United Nations, because they would just pass a resolution and the U.N. would make sure that chemical weapons are not used. Unfortunately, the U.N. never measured up to what he expected.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And in a real sense, that brings us full circle.

What this debate is about, among other things, is the meaning of the term American exceptionalism. I mean, the president is taking an almost Wilsonian view that America’s greatest weapons literally are not military, they’re not bombs and tanks. They are values. They are moral weapons, if you will.

GWEN IFILL: Is the president taking a view that when you define the national interest, that it’s broader than just someone is going to attack us here?



MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Although, in a very cynical time that we’re in, and with great public skepticism that it’s no longer the Vietnam syndrome, we’re now dealing with the Iraq syndrome, he has got to cloak that in language that, even if it’s very contrived, just ties that as much as possible to American national interests as possible, without getting into false claims that, you know, the Syrians about to invade Chicago.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about that, because we are in the middle of a persuasion period, where the president and his allies are trying to persuade not only Congress, but also the American people, that this is something worth doing.

Is that something — have we seen presidents who have been able to change the public’s mind about an international intervention in the past?


After Saddam invaded Kuwait, how many Americans were worried about the fact that the government of Kuwait was dominated by the Iraqis? It was George H.W. Bush quickly, in the wake of Vietnam — it hadn’t been that many years — who said, I want to send 500,000 Americans around the world to retrieve Kuwait, and I think this is something that is in the American interest.

September of 1990, when that happened, most Americans would have said, this is ridiculous, we’re not doing this. But, in a few months, he was able to use the power of the presidency to move Congress and move the people. And that’s the key thing. If you go through American history, presidents, even to this day, have an amazing ability to change Americans’ minds on foreign policy when they have to.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Literally overnight, Ronald Reagan transformed the mood of the country and the conversation, needless to say, around the watercooler, remember, following the terrible explosion in Lebanon, where over 200 American Marines were killed.

And what was it? Within 48 hours, 72 hours, American troops were in Grenada liberating American medical students and preventing allegedly a communist takeover of that island. So, sometimes, it isn’t words, but deeds.

GWEN IFILL: And images. Do images change people’s minds? We have seen pictures not only of apparently poisoned children, victims of chemical warfare. We have also seen pictures of rebels appearing to line up and assassinate government forces after stripping them.

Do those images change minds, too?


I mean, Bill Clinton — we were in Somalia on a humanitarian mission. Americans in 1993 saw an image of a dead American being dragged through the streets. People said, we want no more of this, and he wasn’t able to sustain it.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes. I actually think it’s harder, in this day where we are suffused with images, and the Internet is a significant part of this.

You can get any truth you want. And I think it’s harder for a president. Plus, we haven’t even mentioned the president is trying to do this at a time of continuing polarization in the country.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss…



GWEN IFILL: Stay tuned. Thank you.