woody zimmerman 118 2007In previous articles I have mentioned presidents who employed wars or rumors of wars to divert the American public’s attention away from untoward political situations or to make a favorable impression on voters and the news media. President Lyndon Johnson was perhaps the first who thought it advantageous to start shooting to influence an election. To that end he used an incident on August 2, 1964, when the destroyer USS Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Bay of Tonkin.

Patrolling off the central and northern coasts of North Vietnam, the Maddox detected NV torpedo boats in close proximity. Commander Captain John J. Herrick later reported that he ordered gun crews to fire warning shots if the boats approached closer than 10,000 yards. When they did so, the Maddox opened fire. A barrage of heavy gunfire ensued, with the Maddox expending 280 3- and 5-inch shells and damaging all three torpedo boats. (Captain Herrick’s detailed report was not made public, but the Johnson administration reported that the NV boats had “fired first.”)

That incident became the basis for the Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Johnson to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered “jeopardized by communist aggression.” The resolution became LBJ’s legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and commencing open warfare against North Vietnam. (Some readers might be surprised, possibly shocked, to learn that Vietnam was the fourth 20th-century war in which our participation was initiated by Democratic presidents.)

Although it was a foregone conclusion that a “sympathy vote” – owing to the assassination of President Kennedy a year earlier – would easily elect LBJ to a full term in November, the president seemed to find it advantageous (or even necessary) to be seen as a strong “wartime” leader. Indeed, the media lionized the president in those terms over the Tonkin action. Whether that boosted his vote totals is unknown, but he did defeat GOP candidate Barry Goldwater by 61% to 39% in the popular vote – the largest winning margin of the 20th century (although both FDR and Richard Nixon had larger electoral-vote margins in 1936 and 1972). Certainly, the “warrior” image did Mr. Johnson no harm.

War, however – much like fire – can be both a useful servant and a dangerous, unpredictable master. Four years later, with the war dragging on, the Tet Offensive badly rattling the public’s confidence, and anti-war protesters on the march, LBJ declined to run for a second full term. The war that he hoped would make him look like a strong leader had knocked him out of the box.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton launched missile-strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, North Sudan, claiming that it was being used to produce the VX nerve agent. But skeptical critics charged that the strike was meant to distract the media and the public away from Mr. Clinton’s personal misconduct involving Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones. Miss Lewinsky, a White House intern, claimed that she and the president had engaged in sexual activity in the Oval Office on several occasions – a charge vigorously denied by Mr. Clinton, but later shown to be true. In a related investigation, Special Prosecutor Ken Starr also found that the president had obstructed justice, while governor of Arkansas, by committing perjury and tampering with a jury in a sexual harassment suit brought by Miss Jones, a former Arkansas state employee.

In late 1998, the House of Representatives impeached Mr. Clinton on the obstruction of justice and perjury charges, but confusion of those charges with the Lewinsky affair caused many voters to believe the president was being prosecuted for sexual misconduct. As the public was divided on whether this was an “impeachable” offense – although it was not the impeachment charge – Democratic senators were able to justify voting in a bloc against conviction. Thus, Mr. Clinton stayed in office. It’s not clear if the missile-attacks helped him, but he did beat the rap.

After Mr. Clinton left office, however, an Arkansas court disbarred him for five years over the jury-tampering and perjury charges connected to the Paula Jones case. Numerous legal observers noted that an ordinary person might well have been disbarred for life.

I recount all of the foregoing because Mr. Obama is currently in “deep doo-doo” (as George H. W. Bush liked to say) over numerous scandals: i.e., gun-sales to Mexican drug sellers, political corruption of the IRS, NSA data-gathering excesses against American citizens, and the release of much classified information by two former government employees. Also, terrorists who sacked our Libyan embassy and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens have not yet been brought to justice. Although the Obama administration has tried hard to bury the Libya case, it is still alive.

On the domestic front, Mr. Obama has been spending borrowed money so extravagantly that likening him to drunken sailors would be unfair to the sailors. “Stimulus” spending in the trillions that he said would revive the economy has produced 2 million fewer people employed than when the presient took office. Although official unemployment is down from a high of 10% during his first term, statisticians note that the reduction is mainly due to elimination from the statistical calculation of over 2 million “discouraged” workers who are no longer seeking work. If uncounted idle workers and part-timers who desire full-time employment were correctly included, the true unemployment rate would exceed 14% – a level not seen since the Great Depression. Mr. Obama has increased the National Debt from $10 trillion to $16 trillion.

To counter all this bad news, he has been dashing round the country promising his base new spending programs that don’t have a prayer of enactment by Congress. Earlier this year, Mr. Obama also made a mighty attempt to shroud all these bothersome fiscal issues with a campaign against gun-violence, but it failed to catch on and achieve the desired diversionary effect.

Despite the president’s assurances that Al Qaeda is “on the run” and all but kaput, terrorism has roared back across the world. His Arab Spring dream of establishing peaceful, cooperative Islamic states in various countries has gone a-glimmering. Lately, Egypt’s populace rose up and threw out its Muslim Brotherhood-run government, accepting a military government in its place. The country is in chaos, as radical Muslim elements try to retake control.

Luckily, however, another “war-leadership” opportunity has now arisen, apparently just in time to help the president. The latest Middle East upheaval looks like it might present an opportunity for Mr. Obama to regain his leadership mojo. A civil war has been going on in Syria for three years. Islamist rebels there are trying to depose strongman Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the country since 1971. Assad has taken brutal measures against the rebels, resulting in at least 100,000 dead (total, both sides). President Obama has declined to intervene, except to say Assad “must go” and to promise the rebels “small arms” some months ago. A year ago he also warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government would “cross a red line” – implying that a strong response would come from the USA, the exact nature of which was left unspecified.

In recent days, evidence has surfaced which suggests that chemical weapons – probably nerve gas – have been used against civilians east of the capital, Damascus. Hundreds of dead were reported and photographed. The Syrian government stands accused of using the gas weapons, but the Assad regime claims the weapons were used by rebel forces. There is no conclusive proof of which side used the chemical agents, since it is not known where the stores of those weapons are located, nor which of those areas might be controlled by the rebels.

A great debate has sprung up over this central issue, and on what our response (if any) should be. Mr. Obama says the proof that the Assad government used the chemical agents is “conclusive,” and at first he acted as though he would launch a military attack without the Congress’s review or approval. After British Prime Minister Cameron backed away from military action, however, Mr. Obama seems to have reconsidered how much haste was really required. As I write this report, the president has announced that he will take no action until the Congress can review and approve it. Congress is currently in recess, and will not return until September 8th.

My own assessment is that Mr. Obama will be in no hurry to pull the trigger unless the public supports it. Current polls show that 60%+ of Americans do not want us to take military action in Syria. Also, the question of which side used the chemical weapons is of potentially great moment. President George W. Bush used intelligence reports claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons to justify invading Iraq and deposing Hussein. That “intelligence” turned out to be flawed, resulting in a steady drumbeat from liberals who claimed Mr. Bush had “lied” us into war: i.e., “Bush lied, people died…” etc. He never overcame this accusation. Despite all that he did to defend and protect the country from terrorist attacks, it poisoned his presidency.

Thus, if Mr. Obama is wise, he will hold his fire until he absolutely knows who used the gas. Both commentator Jeffrey Kuhner and former assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey have written that for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons would be counter-productive, since Assad already had the upper hand, militarily, and he knew he could expect reprisals if he used those weapons. It would make far more sense for the rebels to use the gas, and then pretend that Assad did it in order to draw us into a military response that could damage Syria’s air force or other military assets. Numerous security analysts lean this way.

Crude jokes about Assad not being the brightest bulb in the chandelier will not do. He is not a stupid man, and this is not a joking matter. We can’t afford to make a mistake that could precipitate a new war across the Middle East.

Understanding all this, and reading their constituencies correctly, the British House of Commons voted not to intervene. Prime Minister David Cameron has thus announced that Britain will take no military action. Angela Merkel’s German government has also declined, leaving Mr. Obama in the uncomfortable position of going solo on an act of war against Syria.

Delay, however, is Mr. Obama’s best friend, as every day spent debating, arguing, speculating and planning is one more day for attention to be diverted away from the stalled economy, the “phony” scandals, his confused foreign policy, etc., etc. Whether he goes or not, he still benefits.

Taking strong (but not too strong) action in Syria could make the president look like a decisive warrior-leader again, in time for the crucial elections of 2014. There’s nothing like a good war to raise the country’s confidence in its president – as long as the war doesn’t last very long and no one gets killed. But Mr. Obama has to tread very cautiously here. Iran and Russia – both supporters of Syria – might react badly to any military action by us, no matter how “limited” we say it is. It’s very important to think through the repercussions from “sending a shot across Syria’s bow.” Things could easily spin out of control, as they did for LBJ in Vietnam.

The last thing Americans want is to get entangled in another bloody war in the Middle East. Mr. Obama was elected, in large part, because he promised to get us out of those wars, and keep us out. Whatever he might think about the loyalty of his leftist base, I doubt if the anti-war crowd will embrace a shooting war in Syria. They haven’t marched lately, but they will if he makes a misstep here. Once those anti-war rallies get started, the media will run after them like hounds chasing a rabbit. They will forget all about Mr. Obama’s beatific paeans to “peace through reason.” And he will become LBJ II.