Why This Will Be the Unaccountable War

Yesterday the House voted 273-156 to train and equip Syrian rebels, a part of President Obama's plan to combat ISIL, and today the Senate is expected to do the same. While it might look on the surface like Congress taking a stand and accepting responsibility for this new engagement, in fact, this is likely to be a war with no accountability for any political figure other than Barack Obama himself.

The "no" votes were a combination of Democrats who opposed the Iraq War in 2003 and don't want to see us pulled back into another war there, and Republicans who either want a bigger war with massive numbers of ground troops or just hate Barack Obama so much they can't cast a vote for anything he proposes (or both). Today, the Senate is expected to pass the measure as well, and we'll probably see the same thing: members from both parties on each side, with drastically different reasons for voting the same way. The whole thing is the kind of war you'd expect from the Obama presidency, defined by complexity, nuance, and ambiguity. It's hard to even say who's "pro-war" and "anti-war" anymore, in Congress or the public at large.

As in so many things, this is a stark contrast with Obama's predecessor, who famously saw everything in black and white. After September 11, George W. Bush told the entire world, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." It was a message to his domestic opponents as well: get behind me, or prepare to be called a terrorist sympathizer. And many were.

Twelve years after Congress voted to authorize the Iraq War, the reverberations from that war are still being felt, at least within the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton may cruise to the 2016 nomination, but I guarantee you that the most skeptical questioning she'll face will be from liberals who still can't forgive her for that vote. Every other Democrat who voted the same way has had to squirm and sweat over those questions (you remember what a problem it was for John Kerry in 2004). There was no escaping where you planted your flag.

That's because George W. Bush wasn't just manichean and oversimplified in his own thinking, he forced the entire political world to step into one of the boxes he drew. You had to be either pro-war or anti-war, and no amount of explaining and hedging would define you otherwise. But with Obama's new war (if we can even call it that), there's no talk of a pro-war side and an anti-war side. Sure, there are Democrats who oppose the entire engagement and Republicans demanding a full-scale invasion. But the debate isn't revolving around those two positions. That's both because of the kind of action Obama has proposed, and because of Congress' own unwillingness to vote on one resolution covering the entire conflict. But shades of grey abound.

The result, for better or worse, is that accountability will be in short supply. If things go well, nearly everyone will be able to say that it was just what they wanted. And if things go poorly, everyone will likewise be able to say that if their counsel had been heeded, it all would have worked out for the best. No future presidential candidate is likely to suffer too much because of where they stood on this war, because there are so many places to stand.