Back in 2008, one of the things—maybe the main thing—that convinced liberal Democrats that Barack Obama was more liberal than Hillary Clinton was that while Clinton had supported the Iraq War and was seen as generally to the more hawkish side of national-security issues, Obama had opposed the war and sounded generally more skeptical about the use of American military power. Having been right on Iraq was a pretty rare calling card, and a lot of liberals took it as a proxy for something larger. It wasn't just that he was less like George W. Bush, it meant that he had the courage to stand up to Republicans and advocate for liberal values when other Democrats quaked in fear.
In retrospect, it doesn't seem that Obama was or is more liberal than Clinton in any substantive way, aside from perhaps a small policy difference here or there. And while he hasn't started any new big wars on the scale of Iraq, that isn't saying much, since Iraq was our biggest war since Vietnam. Today Kevin Drum takes E.J. Dionne to task for saying that "Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up until now."
Wait a second. I realize that Dionne is only talking about Syria here, but in the past five years Obama has (a) escalated twice in Afghanistan, (b) massively ramped up the drone war in Pakistan and expanded it to Yemen, (c) joined NATO's air strikes against Libya, and (d) is now asking Congress to approve a punitive military mission against Syria.
No, none of this matches Iraq in the annals of military folly. And who knows? Maybe history will judge that these were all good decisions. Still, I think it's about time to acknowledge that Obama is hardly "reluctant" to take military action. Neither I nor anyone else will ever know how hard he struggles with these decisions in the innermost recesses of his soul, but in the end he actually seems pretty damn agreeable about taking military action, doesn't he?
I suppose you can be reluctant about doing something, and still do it over and over again. It may be that today's world presents many problems that can only be solved with the application of American military power, and even though it pains Obama every time, he keeps deciding to do it. One by one, a reasonable person—even one who thinks there are almost always better options than the use of force—could consider each of these uses of force to be the best available choice for the United States to make at the time.
I do think that what's notable about these efforts, with the exception of the Afghanistan escalation, is that they go to great lengths to avoid risking the lives of American servicemembers. Drone strikes are less risky (in the short term, that is) than bombing raids with manned aircraft, no U.S. personnel were killed in the Libya effort, and now he's pushing for a strike on Syria that will likely be accomplished only from afar with missiles.
Does that change the moral calculus? Not really. We usually act as though an American life is worth more than the life of someone from another country, but almost no one would be willing to make that claim explicitly. Furthermore, I'm sure that presidents both Democrat and Republican feel genuine pain when they decide to send soldiers to battle and some of them wind up dead. Nevertheless, some presidents are much more willing than others to put aside those feelings and put the men and women of the armed services at risk anyway.
I'm not saying that Obama is just as much of an imperialist warmonger as his predecessors but just does it in a way that makes it easier for him to sleep at night. But one of the many things about being president that I don't think any of us can truly appreciate is what it would be like to have that power at your disposal. To have people come to you and say, "There's something terrible or threatening happening in a land far away, and you have the power to do something about it," by using this highly trained and absurdly well-equipped machine we have idling in the garage. All you need to do is say the word.