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'We will not repeat that moment': Why Syria isn't a rerun of Iraq

9:12 PM, Aug 30, 2013   |    comments
A handout picture made available by Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian people waving their national flags in Homs province on Aug. 19.(Photo: SANA/EPA)
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President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron all seem intent on proving that any strike against Syria would be different from the 2003 campaign George W. Bush against Saddam Hussein.

In a speech accusing Bashar al-Assad's regime of using chemical weapons, Kerry said Friday: "Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment."

Later, from the White House, Obama said, "In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground, that would involve a long-term campaign, but we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act."

Cameron, too, sought separation from the eight-year Iraq War in the House of Commons on Thursday.

"Barack Obama is a man who opposed the action in Iraq. No one could in any way describe him as a president who wants to involve America in more wars in the Middle East," Cameron said.

He added: "What we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different. We are not invading a country. We are not searching for chemical or biological weapons."

His argument ultimately failed to convince lawmakers, with Parliament voting against possible military action.

So are there any similarities between a possible Syria strike and the 2003 Iraq offensive?

Scope and scale
The Iraq invasion in 2003 led to an eight-year military occupation that cost hundreds of billions of dollars. At its peak, 170,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq, with many soldiers on repeated tours of duty.

Obama pledged Wednesday that any action against Syria would be small in scale and short in duration. He said he's "not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about."

Goal: deter chemical weapons use, not depose a tyrant
In 2003, Bush made it clear from the outset that Hussein had to leave power or be forced out. "The day of your liberation is near," Bush told the Iraqi people two days before the attack began.

At issue in Iraq were alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, accusations of human rights violations and purported links to terrorist organizations.

But in Syria, Kerry said Friday, the U.S. goal is "to ensure that a despot's brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable."

Kerry promised that the U.S. would "not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway" and that he still thinks "a diplomatic process" can "resolve this through negotiation."

"We're not talking about regime change here," White Hosue spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday.

He said Obama's goal was to "bring about a transition of leadership ... so that the Syrian people can have a government that reflects their will. That is somewhat different than the approach that was taken by the previous administration dealing with Iraq."

And yet the outcome Bush sought in 2003 and the one Obama ultimately seeks now are not really that different: In the best-case scenario, a tyrant is gone and a representative form of government is put in his place.

Authorization by Congress
In the summer of 2002, Bush administration officials indicated that perhaps the president didn't need to get a vote by Congress to authorize the use of force. Democratic congressional leaders insisted that a vote was necessary, and both the House and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to authorize the White House to use military force against Hussein.

In the case of Syria, it seems unlikely that there will be a vote by Congress before Obama orders military action. Asked directly Thursday whether Obama thinks Congress ought to vote on attacking Syria, Earnest sidestepped the question, speaking only of "consultation."

According to the 1973 War Powers Resolution, the president must notify and consult with Congress before sending U.S. forces into "hostilities." The law says the use of military forces must end within 60 to 90 days without authorization or an extension from Congress.

UN Security Council resolution
As part of his justification for invading Iraq, Bush cited U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which in 2002 offered Hussein's regime a "final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations" and warned of "serious consequences." Not all countries interpreted the resolution as sufficient legal basis for invading Iraq.

In the case of Syria, Kerry said Friday, "because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should."

Kerry said Obama "will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests."

Coalition members
In the campaign to topple Hussein, Operation Iraqi Freedom, 49 countries publicly committed to the effort, although only some of them - including Italy, Poland and Britain - sent troops to fight alongside U.S. forces.

It now appears that perhaps only France will use its military forces to support an attack on the Assad regime.

Obama told reporters Friday that he still has a "strong preference for multilateral action whenever possible, but it is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations of these kinds of international norms."

Less emphasis on intelligence data
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R- Mich., said Thursday that "when people see the evidence in a classified way, they'll be convinced like I was convinced" that Assad's regime did use chemical weapons in the protracted civil war.

But the hyping of intelligence data in the run-up to the Iraq War has led Cameron, for one, to play down the role of intelligence ahead of any potential strikes.

"The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode," Cameron said Thursday, describing how as a junior member of Parliament he'd sat in the Commons in 2003 listening to Prime Minister Tony Blair making the case for war against Hussein. Cameron said he had "believed everything he (Blair) told me."

After the invasion, U.S. weapons teams were unable to find large caches of Hussein's chemical and biological weapons.

Cameron told the House of Commons, "I don't want to raise - as perhaps was raised in the Iraq debate - the status of individual or even groups of pieces of intelligence into some kind of quasi-religious cult."

Instead, he cited "open source reporting," such as videos and circumstantial evidence of Assad's chemical weapons use. "Let's not pretend there's one smoking piece of intelligence that can solve the whole problem."

NBC News

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