In a speech at a 2002 anti-war rally, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, conceded that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was "a brutal man," "a ruthless man," "a man who butchers his own people to secure his own power." He noted that the Iraqi dictator "has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity."
In short, there was no question that "the world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him." Still, Obama said, "Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States." Hence a U.S. invasion aimed at overthrowing him would be "a dumb war," "a rash war," "a war based not on reason but on passion."
Notably, Saddam's crimes against his own people included using chemical weapons against Kurds in northern Iraq, a campaign that killed some 5,000 men, women and children. That murderous assault, in Obama's view, did not justify U.S. intervention.
Today, by contrast, Obama says a sarin-gas attack that caused about 1,400 of the 100,000 deaths so far in Syria's civil war demands an American response in the form of missiles aimed at President Bashar al-Assad's forces. "What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?" Obama asked in a speech on Saturday. Presumably the same message he was willing to send when he opposed war with Iraq.
Don't worry, Obama said: "This would not be an open-ended intervention." That assurance is hard to believe, given that Obama's 2011 air campaign in Libya, which he likewise claimed was necessary to prevent the "slaughter" of civilians, quickly became an operation aimed at toppling Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Furthermore, Obama already has said Assad must go, and U.S. involvement in Syria already has escalated. Two months ago, Obama announced that he would start arming the rebels because Assad had crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons. Now that Assad has used them again, Obama says, the U.S. has no choice but to launch a missile attack. And if Assad remains undeterred after that punishment, what then?